The end of Rico: “Little Caesar” (1931)

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By Scott Ross

This early talkie was, with The Public Enemy (also 1931) one of two movies that more or less created, and defined, the gangster picture, and made Warner Bros. a haven for tough movies about important social issues. Neither could have been made at any studio other than Warners, which quickly became known and celebrated for “social problem” pictures: Five Star Final (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing (both 1932) and Heroes for Sale, Baby Face and Wild Boys of the Road (all 1933). This pair of archetypal gangland sagas also launched, in James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, two of the studio’s most durable male stars.

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Made early in the talkie revolution, Little Caesar is a bit creaky in its groupings of the actors and lacks the fast cutting effects of later sound pictures that made them movies once more and not filmed stage plays. One accepts these limitations; what might have made it a better movie has little to do with its technical limitations, however, but with its divergences from its source. W.R. Burnett’s eponymous book is a short novel bristling with speed and tough action, almost journalistic in its depiction of the meteoric rise, and precipitous fall, of a gangster based pretty obviously on Al Capone. Although it contains a certain amount of interior impressions that would be impossible to translate to the screen, Burnett wrote it almost like an elaborate screen treatment, practically a blueprint for an effective screenplay, and what the filmmakers lost is seldom compensated by what they altered, or added. The one exception is the penultimate sequence in a Chicago flop-house, where the once mighty, previously teetotalling Rico (Robinson) lies on a cot drinking cheap liquor, his eyes burning with wet alcoholic rage as he listens to a sneering newspaper account of his downfall being read by one of his fellow down-and-outers. Given something stronger to project than vulgar charisma and better lines to speak than the prototypical tough-guy dialogue he spouts throughout the picture, Robinson suddenly explodes into life, giving you an incendiary glimpse of the formidable talent he possessed, and would have occasion to draw on later. As someone (I think it might have been Alain Silver) on the Warner DVD documentary quite correctly notes, Robinson’s reaction to being shot down at the end — genuine shock that he’s dying — is a remarkably incisive and honest piece of acting.

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In the supporting cast, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. gives little hint of the rather good actor he would later become, Glenda Farrell as his dance partner and girlfriend has little to play but extremes, William Collier Jr. as a terrified getaway driver behaves as though he’s pantomiming for a silent movie and Thomas E. Jackson plays a sarcastic police sergeant in the worst theatrical phony-Irish manner imaginable; he mugs more than James Finlayson. Lucille La Verne (later the voice of the wicked Queen in the Disney Snow White) gets a nice scene as Ma Magdalena, a mercenary Rico mistakes for a friend. In the novel Ma is his unofficial banker, loyal for a fee; in the movie, in exchange for giving him sanctuary, she steals him blind. From book to movie Ma goes from local color to an effective, if heavy, ironic device.

One of the odder aspects of Little Caesar is the way its creators (Mervyn LeRoy directed it, Francis Edward Faragoh got the by-line for the screenplay, Robert Lord and Darryl F. Zanuck worked on it uncredited, and Robert N. Lee is given credit for “Continuity”) imply that Rico may be homosexual. There’s nothing in Burnett’s book to suggest this, and the scenarists seem to have taken their cue from the author’s early observation that Rico has no interest in women. Yet it’s quite clear from the narrative that he’s heterosexual, and that he seeks contact with women when he feels sexually compelled. Indeed, once he has achieved his first goal and vanquished his boss in the gang, he takes up with a cheap blonde with whom he is erotically if not romantically involved. It’s further suggested in the movie that he’s in love with the dancer and part-time gang member Joe Massara (Fairbanks), especially when at a crucial moment he’s unable to kill him.* (They’re old friends and criminal cohorts in the movie, initially unfriendly rivals and only later friendly compatriots in the book.) The only character in the novel who might be sexually fluid is Rico’s loyal Latino factotum Otero (George E. Stone), who, while nominally straight keeps proclaiming how much he loves Rico, although this feels rather more like hero-worship than erotic attraction. In the movie, however, there’s a curiously staged bedroom scene between a clearly besotted Otero and a supine Rico that could almost be a post-coital conversation, except they’re both fully clothed.†

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One can imagine how Capone felt about that when he saw Little Caesar. And it’s a cinch he did see it; sociopaths, egotists and the wealthy — or am I being redundant? — can always be counted upon to dine out on any depiction of themselves.

Speaking of names: I’ve always assumed the 1970 RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute’s acronym was a reference to Little Caesar. G. Robert Blakey, who drafted the law, claims it wasn’t. But I don’t have to believe him if I don’t want to.


*The kicker in Rico’s death-scene is that he’s gunned down behind a billboard depicting Fairbanks and Farrell as the stars of a new theatrical musical.

†You know Little Caesar is a Pre-Code picture, not merely due to its violence, or to those diaphanous gay references, but because twice someone is told to “screw.”

 

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Cinematic neoteny: “In a Lonely Place” (1950)

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By Scott Ross

There is a fair amount to admire in the 1950 thriller In a Lonely Place, but you may respond to it more fully than I did if you have not read the 1947 Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which it is ostensibly based. Hughes’ book is the earliest I know of in American popular literature (although there are probably others) to examine what we now routinely call a serial killer, and to do so from his point of view. The Dixon Steele of Hughes’ short, sharp character study is an almost classic sociopath, smug, narcissistic and paranoid, for whom every word spoken, or action undertaken, by others is a potential threat to his imagined security. And although he blames his monthly killings of young women in the Los Angeles area on “megrimes,” any suggestion in his own restless mind of a betrayal can set him off. It’s a thoroughly chilling portrayal, weakened only by Dix Steele’s double phallic pun of a name and a credulity-stretching climax (would Dix’s friend, the police detective Brub Nicolai, really put his own wife in danger after repeatedly telling Steele how he’s infected her with his fears?) and illuminated throughout with writing which, while often strikingly beautiful, is in no way stereotypically “feminine.” Hughes was as hard-boiled as Chandler, but without the fussiness, or the macho chip on the shoulder.

As written, Steele is the sort of character Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark usually got typecast as, although Hughes describes him in a way that suggests he’s young-male-ingenue handsome. And while the Steele of the book pretends to be writing a mystery novel so he can give a legitimate reason for inserting himself into the investigation of his own crimes, the Dixon Steel played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie is a professional screenwriter teetering between success and failure and hampered largely by his explosive temper. I’m not sure I accept that a minor Hollywood scribe could get away with as many violent incidents as Steele has — the list, and it’s a long one, is enumerated by the police captain (Carl Benton Reid) directing the case of the young woman (Martha Stewart) murdered shortly after leaving Dix’s apartment — or that a purported failure could live in quite as nice a place as Steele does, but everyone who knows him seems to be aware of, and to accept, his almost homicidal rages. People, in Hollywood and elsewhere, are ostracized for less. But the champions of In a Lonely Place, movie critics and movie directors, love self-referential pictures almost as they love something they identify, usually wrongly, as film noir.

Being auteurists to their core, they especially love that the gifted hack Nicholas Ray directed it. I don’t knock Ray entirely; he had a certain feral energy as a director that lent itself well to grungy thrillers. But it’s difficult to look at hifalutin programmers like On Dangerous Ground, symbol-laden and unintentionally hilarious Technicolor camp such as Johnny Guitar or pretentious and hysterical trash on the order of Rebel Without a Cause and find a great movie artist at work among their ruins. That Jean-Luc Godard could write, with utter seriousness, in a review of the botched Bitter Victory, “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray” probably explains Godard better than anyone else could. Nor am I in sympathy with those who go into rhapsodies over what a great movie about Hollywood In a Lonely Place is; the Dixon Steele of the movie could be a writer of any sort inspired by love to turn a job of work into something better. There’s no special air of “Hollywood” to the picture other than that, and the fact Ray had the apartment building designed to resemble one he’d lived at during his earliest days in the city. Certainly In a Lonely Place isn’t a patch on Sunset Boulevard, which had more to say about movieland than merely getting off the occasional witty aperçus that decorate Andrew Solt’s screenplay.

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What shall we do with the drunken actor? Humphrey Bogart, Art Smith, Robert Warwick and Gloria Grahame.

And what of that script? On the plus side it has those one-liners, a few good scenes, and makes a rich, full (and likable) character out of Hughes’ calculating sensualist Laurel Grey so that when Steel falls in love with her it isn’t, as in her novel, one-sided. (Although it should be noted that nowhere in the book does Laurel deceive Dix into thinking she loves him back; he just can’t see how she couldn’t.) And since either Solt, or Edmund H. North who did the adaptation, made the narrative less Hughes’ portrait of a killer than a sketch of a man who might be a murderer, now or at the moment someone isn’t around to stop him, that is to his (or their) credit as well. In the minus column… well, pretty much everything else, from the way the script renders Hughes’ troubled police inspector a tough-guy cliché, to its adding in a lugubrious sentimental drunk ham-actor (Robert Warwick) for Dix to take pity on, to another addition, Steele’s long-suffering agent (Art Smith) who is either harder up than he admits, in love with Steele, or as lacking in intellect as he is in self-esteem; he certainly behaves like an idiot. On the Criterion disc Curtis Hansen, who in his writing and direction ruined (to great acclaim from semi-literates) what is probably James Ellroy’s finest novel with his disastrous transliteration, calls the In a Lonely Place screenplay “a model of adaptation.” Like L.A. Confidential?

The movie is structured like a conventional mystery, although it’s fairly obvious from the beginning that this Dixon Steele is not a serial murderer but, in his unstable excesses of rage, has the strong potential to kill, and the picture carries us along largely on our curiosity about whether he will. The Dix of the movie, unlike the more certifiable Steele of Hughes’ novel, seems a victim of psychological neoteny — juvenile rages which make Dix brother under the skin to so many Baby Boomers and their tantrum-throwing progeny who, as others such as Eliot M. Camarena have pointed out, actually weep in public when one psychopathic presidential candidate loses to another. I’ll give Nicholas Ray this: Although he shot the ending Solt wrote, in which Dix murders Laurel in a murderous fugue (the cover of the Criterion release seems to be a still taken from that) he had second, and better, thoughts about it. The best thing in the picture, in fact, aside from the performances by Bogart and Grahame, is the ending he came up with, which replaces violence and repentance with a nearly unbearable sadness. Whether this seemingly insuperable anguish burns the rage out of Dixon Steele is doubtful, but it kills love, and hope, and one can imagine Dix spending the rest of his days afraid to love again.

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I think it’s this devastating climax that endears In a Lonely Place to so many cineastes, and causes them to label it, wrongly, noir. And if the rest of the picture were anywhere near as good as those three or four minutes it would indeed be a classic. But much of it is flat, leaving us little to cling to between Steele’s bouts of uncontrollable rage except the actors, and our vague uneasiness about exactly when, and how, Dix will next explode. (And yes, I know that’s what turns some people on about the movie. I just don’t think it’s enough.)

Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is good but not great, and he repeats a terrible device from the 1931 Dracula, in which when he’s directing Nicolai and his wife as they re-enact the girl’s murder Bogart’s eyes are illuminated by a baby spot, to emphasize Steele’s… something or other. It’s as annoying here as it was when they did it to Lugosi, but at least with Dracula the filmmakers had the excuse that the character whose eyes were having light thrown at them was supernatural. (Naturally, the auteurists on the Criterion disc go into ecstasies over this nonsense. So profound!) And although George Antheil’s music seems to be trying for a Miklós Rózsa flavor the composer hasn’t the feel for it. (Of the Hollywood composers prominent at that time, Rózsa would have been best for this job, followed by Franx Waxman and David Raksin.) There are two notable scenes involving black actors which, while they do not emphasize the race of the performers, also do not denigrate them for it: Hadda Brooks’ sequence in a nightclub, playing and singing the appropriately-titled “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You,” and a brief scene between Bogart and Davis Roberts as a flower shop employee, a moment notable for how normalized Roberts’ role, dialogue and performance are, and which does credit to the movie’s director.

Grahame, who a couple of years later would win an undeserved Oscar® for an extended cameo — and over Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain! — shows how good she could be at playing a bright, independent woman who, as Bogart’s Steele observes, knows what she wants. “I also know what I don’t want,” she advises him. “And I don’t want to be rushed.” Unlike the Laurel Grey of Hughes’ novel, Grahame is avid for more than sex; she’s a helpmeet and a friend and she hangs with Dix until she can no longer ignore the signs that he’s dangerous. Before his jealous rages begin, she and Bogart have a mature, relaxed and cheerful give-and-take that is the most pleasurable aspect of the picture.

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Steele is one of those roles that stretched Bogart, and you feel he was lit up by the possibilities. (His company produced the picture.) The extreme, mercurial nature of the character plays to all Bogie’s strengths: His tenderness, his wry humor, his low-key sarcasm, his graceful physicality, his righteous indignation, his ability to brood without our losing sympathy and his own, occasionally frightening, penchant for expressing instantaneous fury. Performances like this one remind us of just how much was lost when Humphrey Bogart died at the obscenely young age of 57.

As with many of Bogart’s movies, In a Lonely Place could be a great deal better. But I don’t see how he could.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

The way to dusty death: “My Darling Clementine” (Preview and Release versions, 1946)

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By Scott Ross

It’s no secret that the industrial nature of the American movie business — and never forget that it is a business — militates against personal expression. (Not art, necessarily; as long as it took a popular form, made a huge profit and, preferably, left an opening at the end for a sequel, the studios would doubtless approve the filming of the Guernica, with a cast of thousands.) And it becomes exponentially difficult, in the absence of found footage, to know what a figure such as John Ford put into a picture that someone else subsequently took out. Darryl F. Zanuck removed as much as 30 minutes from Ford’s first cut of My Darling Clementine, enough so that, while he regarded Zanuck as the best editor in the business, Ford felt the resulting movie was no longer his. This strongly suggests that what we have of the picture now, what 20th Century-Fox released in 1946, is not merely substantially different from what Ford put his name to, but substantively so. Can we, then, truly call My Darling Clementine one of Ford’s best pictures? Or is it not instead a mutilated masterpiece?

But mutilated how, exactly? There are certainly differences even between Zanuck’s 103-minute preview version and his 97-minute release print, both available on the Criterion edition, and what is Ford’s is vastly superior to the work of the studio hack Lloyd Bacon, who shot the re-takes at Zanuck’s direction. Especially damaging is the loss of the farewell Ford shot between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs); in his version, retained for the preview, the handshake which, despite his romantic impulse, is all Earp allows himself is, in its almost pious restraint, deeply moving. The kiss on the cheek demanded by Zanuck for the release print is, by contrast, not merely conventional but a kind of violation. Fonda’s Earp is so thunderstruck by his first sight of Clementine that, even if he didn’t feel she was, however estranged from him, Doc Holliday’s woman, to touch her skin with his lips might seem to him a sacrilege. You may think this is carrying infatuation or courtly love to an absurd extreme, but it’s who Earp is. Being a great editor sometimes means knowing what not to cut. And since picture cost $2 million — some of that due to editorial overhauling, and the cost of re-shoots — and only took in $2,750,000, it can scarcely be said that Zanuck was right even on the grounds that his tampering helped. (Not that he’d have been right even if the movie had earned twice that amount.) Even a little thing, like the use of the old folk song “My Darling Clementine” as underscore, is confused. It should be used exclusively for Wyatt and Clementine, and indeed Fonda whistles it in the release print when he doesn’t know she’s in the room. But Zanuck placed it under the scene where she examines Doc’s room, which makes it seem to be a theme for Clementine and Doc as well.

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Zanuck, as head of the studio, had of course every right to balk at releasing a movie he was less than satisfied with. Still, Ford’s track record, not only with 20th Century-Fox, where he’d worked for a quarter century, but generally, was of so high an order, and the movie as it stands — even with Zanuck’s cuts — is so good, it seems impossible he could have delivered a bad cut of Clementine, even if it was long. Something else seems to have been at play here. Perhaps it was Ford’s antagonism towards his boss, which was not without justification. Certainly Zanuck’s intransigence cost him Ford’s further services; a man hardly turns down a guaranteed $600,000 a year, in 1946 or even now, if he’s happy.

But then, God knows Ford could be perverse. And one wonders if he was as naïve as some of his statements seem to indicate. Take, for example, his claim that the climactic shootout at the O.K. Corral was staged exactly as it happened. According to whom? Why, Wyatt Earp, of course. Well, just because Wyatt Earp tells you something doesn’t make it true, and I doubt Ford was that gullible. He may have been closer to revealing himself when he claimed the picture was “essentially a film for children,” yet even that doesn’t get at the truth. There is innocence in My Darling Clementine, and a sense of rigid morality, that probably appeals to children, but the movie itself is an elegy. It’s dark, not only thematically, but pictorially. (It might have been even darker had Zanuck given the director his head on the casting; Ford wanted James Stewart for Earp, but the studio chief didn’t think Stewart would be “believable.” As this was before the actor’s Western collaborations with Anthony Mann, and even before the release of It’s a Wonderful Life, we might be sympathetic to Zanuck’s point of view. But we have the advantage of hindsight; we know, as Zanuck couldn’t, how often, and how fully, Stewart tapped into the darker sides of his nature. And anyway, hadn’t Zanuck seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?) Ford’s vision of Tombstone — situated, by virtue of the movie’s being shot in Monument Valley, the neverland of Ford Country, otherwise known as Utah, rather than in Arizona, where it was actually located — is one of shadow, where even open space can feel cramped by the intrusion of a single person.

I don’t know that I agree with Tag Gallagher, in his video essay on the Criterion set, that this is Ford’s darkest picture — The Searchers is grimmer, and both The Informer and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and even the little-seen 7 Women are experiences of nearly unrelieved darkness — but it’s decidedly fatalistic. In a way it’s entirely concerned with death: It begins with the murder of Earp’s youngest brother James (although in fact James was Wyatt’s elder, and lived to the age of 84), ends with the gunfight in which all the Clantons as well as Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) die, and in between sees the violent death of Doc’s Mexican paramour (Linda Darnell) while the shadow of an early demise haunts Doc throughout. Had Ford made the movie before the war it might have been more conventional, and less Stygian. Coming after, it seems exactly as stark as it ought to be. All of which make the additions, by Zanuck and Bacon, almost obscene; the re-shoot of Wyatt at James’ grave is full of sanctimonious piety and the sort of rank sentimentality Ford and his screenwriter, Winston Miller, eschewed throughout, especially with Earp, whom they depict as taciturn and laconic to an almost pathological degree.*

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There’s a certain dispassion to Earp that verges on the sort of personal coldness Fonda himself was known for. Only when he is stirred by anger (James’ murder, the discovery of a necklace he bought for his girl on Darnell’s neck) or struck dumb (by the beauty of Clementine) does he seem fully human. The cool Fonda exhibits makes this Earp spiritual cousin to James Garner’s Wyatt in The Hour of the Gun (1967), and it doesn’t really matter much whether Fonda’s Earp is an accurate historical portrayal because it’s such a good one. Ford wanted either Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. or Vincent Price for Doc (and if thoughts of the latter doesn’t whet your appetite, you haven’t got one) but got from Victor Mature an almost shockingly right performance. It’s scaled perfectly, the sensitive physician (Holliday was actually a dentist) who can recite Shakespeare battling the brooding, dissipated, tubercular and depressive brute seemingly determined to drink his way to death and to alienate himself from any and all meaningful human contact along the way. Of the leads only Darnell is out of her depth, but then Darnell always was. “Out of her shallow” might be closer to the mark.

As usual with Ford, the support is excellent: Downs, pretty and spirited as Clementine; Walter Brennan as the merciless patriarch of the Clantons, as ready to whip his sons’ faces with a quirt as to kill a defenseless boy alone on the prairie with a herd of undernourished cattle; Tim Holt and Ward Bond as the other Earps; John Ireland as one of the nastier of the Clantons; Alan Mowbray as a fustian actor more at home now with the bottle than the Bard; Jane Darwell in a too-brief role as a madame (although as so often in Production Code-era movies you’d need a score-card to figure out that’s what she is); Francis Ford as a former soldier turned dogsbody; Russell Simpson as a garrulous old man; and, shockingly, Mae Marsh as his withered sister when a mere twenty years earlier she was Buster Keaton’s beloved in The General.

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Ford was urged to shoot the picture in color, but he knew what he could have gotten would have been less than half of what he achieved. Joseph MacDonald’s glorious, fine-grained black-and-white cinematography is among the finest Ford ever got, and that’s saying something. It has both a sheen and a quality of loss and soft, plangent longing, somewhat unspecified and all the more moving for it. Its quality of light holds little comfort and its deep shadows offer the allure only of death, just as its luxuriant, glistening rain is a harbinger of the news of cruel slaughter.

There are occasional jokes in My Darling Clementine — the best involves Darnell soaking Bond with a pitcher of milk — but only one line is really funny… and gallows-humorous at that. Observing how Doc reacts to Clementine, and she to him, Wyatt asks the bartender Mac (J. Farrell MacDonald) if he’s ever been in love.

Mac instantly responds: “No, I’ve been a bartender all m’ life.”

No wonder Ford’s Earp only shakes Clementine’s hand.

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*The movie’s producer, Samuel G. Engel, did some re-writes on location and managed to get himself an arbitrated co-author credit for them, almost certainly undeserved.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Bitten by moose: “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

Movie comedy, at least in America, has gone through some interesting permutations. Silent comedies let mayhem loose on society but the basic, conservative social structure was maintained and returned to at the end, even by Chaplin, whose Tramp was otherwise deeply outside the prevailing social norm. It took the sound comedians — the Marx Brothers especially but also W.C. Fields, and even Mae West — to unleash anarchy at the movies. When the Production Code Administration stepped in, its ostensible reason for censorship was sex (and West in particular) but it’s notable that comedy itself got tamed; with the Marxes further neutered by MGM, if you wanted a touch of unrepentant anarchy in your comedy you were pretty much left with the Three Stooges. It took another 40 years to see a re-emergence of the anarchic spirit at the cinema, and it didn’t last long this time either: Aside from the Pythons, Ken Shapiro’s The Groove Tube (1974) and the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) there were few other takers, and the brief re-emergence of plotless, anarchic comedy pretty much died with those pictures. (Although you can if you like stretch the period to include Python’s 1983 The Meaning of Life and the 1980 Z/A/Z Airplane!) There seems to be something innately reactionary in American movie audiences that needs to see the old conservative values upheld by the fade-out; even the relatively unfettered Mel Brooks routinely gave us happy endings. Not so the Pythons who, if they hated anything more than punch-lines it was surely warm wrap-ups. Of course, that can lead you up a pretty dim alley sometimes, and it says something fundamental that only one Monty Python movie (Life of Brian) has a strong finale. The others tend to just trickle away: Good-night, folks.

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Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Note, on opposite ends, Neil Innes and Terry Gilliam, with coconut halves.

The Holy Grail comes on strong from the opening credits (Mynd you, møøse bites Kan be pretti nasti…) and the first scene, in which Graham Chapman’s King Arthur and his servant Patsy (Terry Gilliam) appear without mounts but with coconut halves. (That’s how you make a virtue of not having the budget for horses.) It’s all scattershot, and not every joke lands. But most of them do — some are among the funniest bits in post-War comedy — and there are almost no longeurs; the only extended sequence that isn’t especially funny (“The Tale of Sir Lancelot”) is still engaging, especially for Terry Jones as a wan, ashen, dim, lethargic, spotty and almost indeterminately feminine prince with a desire to sing who turns the damsel-in-distress fable on its head. The occasional Neil Innes songs are wonderful, and Terry Bedford’s rich cinematography, coupled with the authentic-looking costumes (Hazel Pethig) and physical production (Roy Smith), make the picture both better looking than most comedies of the period and, deliberately, worse, by design. Not for Python the gleaming towers and scrubbed interiors of Hollywood’s Technicolor® Middle Ages — Eric Idle’s collector of the dead is able to identify Arthur as a king only because “he hasn’t got shit all over him.”

It’s often said that true satire cannot exist in a vacuum, and the Marx Brothers are trotted out to prove the theory; a criticism sometimes leveled against Dr. Strangelove is that, while the Marxes bounce their insanity off the stuffily sensible, the Kubrick picture has no sane character at its center with whom the audience can identify. But who would want to identify with Margaret Dumont? And in a world seemingly gone collectively insane, and in which those running the show are madder than the lunatics committed to our asylums, exactly where can that normative figure be found? On this basis Candide, possibly the greatest of all literary satires, is also a failure, for if Candide himself seems saner than the people around him, his absolute belief in a philosophical system that repeatedly betrays, robs and abuses him makes him the maddest inmate in the world. In the Python world, similarly, it’s simply assumed that there is no underlying sanity. The troupe’s motto seemed to be, If we were sane, could we live like this? Consequently, they all behave as though they’ve been bitten by moose.

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The chain-mail headgear John Cleese wears as Sir Lancelot makes you aware of just how classically handsome his face was in the ’70s; with his square jaw and straight, sharp nose, he could almost pass for an insipid young matinee idol — at least until he speaks, or screws up his eyes, or gets that hilariously blank look which, along with his bellowing mania, is his particular comic specialty. His best roles, however, are as the taunting French knight (“Why do you think I have this outrageous accent, you silly king?”) and the Scots enchanter, Tim, of whom even Chapman’s Arthur notes. “What an eccentric performance!” Idle is an amusingly cowardly Sir Robin and, later, a vacuously smiling castle guard, Michael Palin funniest as the leader of the Knights Who Say “Ni!”, an anarcho-syndicalist peasant and one side of a three-headed giant, and Chapman cuts a dashing figure as Arthur. Although he got fewer of the script’s good lines, he has a memorable verbal shtick: Faced with outrage, being pelted with a catapulted cow, a killer rabbit or a rain of ordure he inevitably screams “Jesus Christ!” In the context of Arthur’s quest for the goblet Christ allegedly drank from at the Last Supper, that’s an hilariously blasphemous exclamation. The Terrys, Jones and Gilliam, perhaps because they were busy directing, had less to do than the others, although Gilliam has a great bit as a bridgekeeper and, aside from the prince, Jones plays the “learned” Sir Bedevere, constantly and superfluously raising the open visor of his helmet and dispensing idiotic “scientific” advice.

There are so many sequences in the picture that have attained a classic status (The Black Night, the witch trial, the French knights, the “Camelot” song and dance, The Nights Who Say “Ni!”, the Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Gorge of Eternal Peril, Gilliam’s frequent animations based on Medieval tapestry) that watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail now is akin to listening to a “Greatest Hits” album — you perk up whenever you get to a favorite scene or bit of comic business, then settle back in to wait for the next. But it’s the same with seeing Monkey Business or Duck Soup, and no Marx fan complains about that.

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Tim the Enchanter: “Death awaits you all… with nasty, big, pointy teeth.”

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Monthly Report: January, 2020

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By Scott Ross

As my quarterly reports seem to be getting longer and longer, and because I’m watching more movies of late, I’m trying a monthly capsule in place of my usual quarterlies. At least this month. If I see fewer movies in future I may go back to the quarterly model, or perhaps a bimonthly accounting.

As ever, click on the highlighted titles for longer reviews.

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Gilbert (2017) Neil Berkeley’s surprisingly sweet, even moving, portrait of the comedian Gilbert Gottfried.


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“Good evening, friends…” Sinatra, Merman and Lahr in an unreasonable facsimile of Anything Goes.

Anything Goes (1954) A mess, with compensations.


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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Walt Disney’s first animated feature still delights — and terrifies —  80-plus years later.


Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Sleeping Beauty - spindle

One of the most visually compelling of the animated features made at his studio while Walt Disney was alive, Sleeping Beauty, initially released in Super Technirama 70mm, is a knockout on a wide theatre screen… a pleasure I am sorry to say few in America will ever enjoy again as I did with Disney cartoons, often, in my youth. It still looks good on a plasma screen, and its climax is beautifully animated, but it’s a rather cold movie — a triumph of design over substance. Disney, busy with his park, let Eyvind Earle impose his style, based in large part on John Hench’s evocations of the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in New York, on the picture, and often backed Earle over his animators. The major problem with Sleeping Beauty is that what should be its central character is little more than a cypher. Cinderella, the previous Disney animated feature focused on a young woman (as opposed to the girl Alice in Alice in Wonderland) gave its heroine rich character, and dimension, from the very first scene. She was kind, and generous, and we understood that, while laboring in terrible circumstances, she never wasted a moment feeling sorry for herself, even if she occasionally (and deservedly) expressed resigned irritation. The teenage Brier Rose/Aurora, this story’s princess, has only one important sequence (directed by Eric Larson) before she falls under the wicked fairy Maleficent’s spell, and while it’s a lovely one, and lengthy, it isn’t enough. And in its aftermath, when she learns her identity from the fairies who raised her and is told she’s betrothed and can’t see the boy she’s met in the forest, her reaction seems petty, like a petulant schoolgirl throwing an after-school fit because her mother’s grounded her.

None of the other characters are especially fulsome except Maleficent, and that’s largely due to Marc Davis’ animation (he also animated Aurora) and Eleanor Audley’s superb vocal performance. Three who come close to being well-defined are the good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, animated almost entirely by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. (Milt Kahl’s Prince Phillip has dimensions, but he’s no more fully sketched-in than the Princess.) Wolfgang Reitherman, who later took Disney animation into an almost entirely sentiment-free realm as the director of every feature between 1961 and 1977, was responsible for the picture’s most effective sequence, the epic battle between Phillip and Maleficent in the form of a great dragon. Interestingly, Reitherman’s mediocre work as the director of the hipper, less emotionally plangent titles of the ’60s and ’70s, is bordered by two of the studio’s best features, 101 Dalmatians and The Rescuers. Somehow, something more came through in those pictures. Whatever it was, a tincture or two should have been applied to Sleeping Beauty.


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons 194373582Although it physically sickens me whenever I think about what RKO did to it, I tend to see what could have been Orson Welles’ masterwork more or less yearly as I get older, and, as with Citizen Kane, usually notice something fresh in it I hadn’t quite seen before — some little detail, or even just a look on one of the actors’ faces, that had previously eluded me and that enriches the experience. And each time I see it, Agnes Moorehead’s performance moves me more. It’s among the most naked jobs of acting in movies; I don’t think the kind of shrill, bitter, self-pitying loneliness she evokes as Fanny Minifer has its equal anywhere in American film, and she doesn’t make you wince; despite yourself, you pity her. That Moorhead was herself as plain as Fanny in the story makes her work doubly impressive, and poignant. And she isn’t afraid to look ugly, as when she mocks Georgie (Tim Holt); you understand, without being told (although it’s made explicit later in the picture) that she has put up with this spoiled brat’s mean-spirited teasing for 20 years, and is giving back in the same, immature, vein — the only response possible. Although Welles maintained that Moorehead’s best scene was removed from the picture and burned, she has two sequences that are almost shocking in their raw emotionality.  One, famously, is near the end, when insupportable reality drives her to hysteria. But the first, when she realizes just how terrible are the consequences of her hurt carelessness, is, although briefer, in its way even greater. The way, leaning over on the staircase nearly in pain, Moorehead moans out Fanny’s misery and regret (Oh, I was a fool!) as if she’d like to push every harmful word she’s ever spoken back down her own gullet, and choke on them, is so utterly without guile or calculation it’s almost a new form of acting. Stanislavsky would have had little to teach her.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Anatomy of a Murder - Gazarra, Stewart
Otto Preminger was a superficially gifted filmmaker who, perhaps because he was as publicity-conscious as Hitchcock, routinely got credit for more than he deserved, and ink for outraging the system, itself largely out of proportion to his achievements. (Burt Kennedy: “I drove by Otto Preminger’s house last night… or is it A House by Otto Preminger?”) I give him a certain amount of credit for unblinkingly depicting addiction and withdrawal in The Man with the Golden Arm (1954) and for twitting the idiot Production Code with The Moon is Blue (1953) but his alleged genius eludes me. That said, Anatomy of a Murder stands not merely as the finest of all courtroom dramas, and a sneakily subversive one, but as one of the greatest of all popular American movies. Much of the credit goes to the sceenwriter, Wendell Mayes, for taking a mildly diverting (and somewhat self-serving) novel by a former Michigan County Prosecuting Attorney — and then state Supreme Court Justice — and improving it in nearly every way. I don’t know how much of this revision was guided by Preminger, but the movie’s deep sense of ambiguity, regarding the law, the behavior of its characters and the case itself was surely shared by the picture’s director. James Stewart gives a career-high performance as the wily defense attorney, and he’s met blow-for-blow by the supporting cast: Lee Remick as a curiously sensual rape victim (one can just hear today’s “a woman never lies” crowd gnashing their teeth and murmuring, “How very dare they!”), Ben Gazzara as her intelligent brute of a husband, Arthur O’Connell as a bibulous former attorney, Kathryn Grant as the murder victim’s heir, George C. Scott as a sneering prosecutor, Orson Bean as an Army shrink, Russ Brown as a trailer park caretaker, Murray Hamilton as a hostile witness, John Qualen as  a prison deputy, Howard McNear as an expert witness, Jimmy Conlin as an habitual drunkard happy to sacrifice his liberty for a case of fine liquor, Don Ross as a shady con, Joseph N. Welch — himself lately, and famously, a defense attorney for the Army against a certain Senator from Wisconsin — as the presiding judge and, sublimely, Eve Arden as Stewart’s wry and long-suffering secretary. Few months have passed since my seeing this movie the first time that I haven’t had occasion to hear Arden’s “If I was on that jury I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t know” reverberate softly in my head.

Anatomy of a Murder - Eve Arden resized

Preminger will never be a favorite of mine, but this movie certainly is.


Casablanca - Bogart drunk

Of all the gin-joints…

Casablanca (1942) I hope it isn’t true, as I have read, that Millennials and their even younger counterparts don’t know, have not heard of and have never seen, one of everybody else’s favorite movies… but I suspect it is. Because it’s in black-and-white? Because it’s older than Star Wars? Because it’s concerned with people, as opposed to special effects? Well, they don’t know who Jack Kennedy was either, or care that he was probably murdered by their government. Whatever the reasons, the losses are theirs entirely. Or soon will be. And then they’ll be the world’s.

Still… imagine a time, 40 or 50 years from now, when no one remembers Casablanca. I’m glad I’ll have been long dead.


My Dinner with Andre
My Dinner with André (1981) In the nearly four decades since this nonpariel movie was released, I don’t think a week has gone by without my recalling something André Gregory said in it. So much of what he and Wallace Shawn discuss seemed at the time both extreme and all too possible. Now their conversation feels entirely prescient.

Wallace Shawn: “I actually had a purpose as I was writing this: I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.”


Key Largo (1948) Key Largo - Bogart on boat
This adaptation, by Richard Brooks and John Huston, of Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 blank verse drama retained little but the basic narrative set-up, a character or two, and the title. The antagonists of the reactionary Anderson’s play were Mexican bandidos, and the Humphrey Bogart character was a deserter from the Spanish Civil War. (He’s also, in typical poetic/nihilist 1930s fashion, killed at the end, after redeeming himself. Huston and Brooks let Bogie off that unnecessary hook.) As a high-tension melodrama, the picture is vastly entertaining as long as you don’t take it seriously for a moment.

Among the things that can’t take much scrutiny is Huston’s desire to make a cheap hood like the Edward G. Robinson character stand in for all the evil of the post-war world. But if you ignore the unworkable metaphors and Lauren Bacall’s inability to do much of anything except smolder and concentrate instead on the performances by Robinson, Bogart and, especially, Claire Trevor as a broken-down alcoholic former gun-moll, as well as the thick Florida atmosphere, the mechanics of the thriller plot, the bits of dialogue that don’t strain for profundity and the best moments of Huston’s direction, Key Largo always makes for a robust evening’s entertainment. The Max Steiner score is a little easier to take than some of his earlier bombast, and the cinematography by Karl Freund is really sumptuous. Freund was the lighting director on some remarkable silents (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Variety, 1925; Metropolis, 1927; and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927) as well as the 1931 Dracula and the 1936 Camille. He was later responsible, in conjunction with Desi Arnaz, for the development of the three-camera technique for television comedy and was, from 1951 to 1957, the director of photography on I Love Lucy. That hasn’t anything to do with Key Largo, but it’s impressive.


Night Moves 6

Night Moves (1975) Paul Vitello, in his 2013 New York Times obituary of the Scottish novelist and sometime screenwriter Alan Sharp, wrote that “his best-known narratives created and then disassembled audience expectations about all the usual Hollywood verities, especially the triumph of justice, love and friendship,” and it seems pretty obvious it was Sharp whose sensibilities most informed this little-seen but essential 1970s detective thriller. It’s as dark and nihilistic as Chinatown, and while I would not claim for it the richness of that landmark of ’70s cinematic Americana, it’s an infinitely better movie than some of the more well-known Arthur Penn-directed pictures of the time like Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks. Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a Los Angeles P.I. with a crumbling marriage, on the trail of a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith). The mystery isn’t that search — Harry finds the girl fairly easily — but what is going on with her stepfather in Florida, and why she is suddenly killed, seemingly by accident.

It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. As the femme fatale, Jennifer Warren’s line-readings are so odd they eventually become false and off-putting, a key telephone answering machine message goes un-listened to and with no dramatic payoff, in an early appearance as a mechanic James Woods doesn’t just chew the scenery but every engine in sight, and some of the scenes don’t seem fully shaped. But it’s wonderfully observed, always intelligent, often witty, and even Griffith is good in it, perhaps because she’s an adolescent and, for once, her little-girl voice is appropriate. The terrific supporting cast includes Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yulin, Janet Ward and John Crawford, Michael Small composed the brief but effective score, and the beautiful photography is by the great Bruce Surtees.


Sahara 1943
Sahara (1943) I don’t know how a movie this implausible can be, conversely, so cleverly contrived, so intelligently written and so engagingly acted. Sahara certainly had some impressive writers involved in it: The screenplay was by John Howard Lawson (with an un-credited assist by Sidney Buchman) and Philip MacDonald wrote the story. The main titles tell us that the picture was based on “an incident depicted in the Soviet photoplay The Thirteen” (Тринадцать, or  Trinadtsat, listed in the credits as 1936 but actually 1937) but a cursory look at the plot for that Russian movie suggests that Sahara is in fact a direct adaptation; the only aspects that seem notably different are the setting (the African desert in 1943 as opposed to Turkestan before the war), the antagonists (Nazis rather than Asian bandits as the besieged heroes’ bêtes noire) and their much greater number. The picture concerns the remnants of a tank crew, a troupe of British Medical Corpsmen its members encounter while on retreat, a Sudanese soldier and his Italian prisoner, a duplicitous Nazi (as if there were any other kind), a phalanx of German soldiers and a desert well. Although not above the occasional war-movie cliché, Sahara is refreshingly restrained and only rarely gives out with one of those bits of Allied propaganda that were de rigueur during the War but which have induced cringes in audiences ever since. The incidentals, such as Rudolph Maté’s crisp, glorious cinematography, Miklós Rózsa’s prototypical score and the Imperial County, California locations, could scarcely be bettered.

Zoltán Korda’s direction is straightforward and without fuss, yet takes time to examine the faces of the actors, and they’re worth lingering over: Humphrey Bogart, of course, as the tank commander, the amusingly named Joe Gunn, but also Dan Duryea in an immensely likable performance as Bogie’s pilot; Bruce Bennett as his navigator; Richard Nugent as the British Captain; Rex Ingram as the Sudanese; and J. Carrol Naish as the Italian. Lloyd Bridges shows up just long enough to get strafed by machine-gun fire, linger a bit, and die, and Peter Lawford is alleged to be among the British but I didn’t spot him. Naish is splendid as the conflicted prisoner (he got an Oscar® nod for it) and if Ingram with his distinctive speech patterns couldn’t be anything but American and isn’t any more believable a Sudanese than he was an Arabian djinn in the Kordas’ 1940 The Thief of Bagdad, anyone who quibbles about that is just spoiling for a fight.

Having recently re-encountered The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Key Largo, I’m in a Bogart mood these days; this entry, while on no account one of his best, made for a more than adequate diversion. And at 98 minutes, Sahara was exactly the right length.


Cutter's Way - John Heard and Jeff Bridges
Cutter’s Way (1981) A beautifully observed study of three more or less desperate people in the form of a grungy thriller, based on an interesting novel, and improving on it. Jeffrey Alan Fishin wrote the incisive screenplay, the recently-deceased Ivan Passer directed with economy and compassion, and I don’t see how the performances by the leads (Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn) could be improved upon. One of the last gasps of 1970s personal cinema, and one of the best arguments for it.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology: January 2020

Standard

By Scott Ross

Submitting a comprehensive, annotated list at the end of 2019 was an exhausting exercise, so I’ve decided to prepare a monthly (or quarterly, depending on the density of lists of the dead) accounting in 2020. The entries below are chronological.

Buck Henry, 89. Buck Henry

America first became aware of Buck Henry not as Buck Henry but as the Dickensian (or perhaps Fieldsian?)-monikered “G. Clifford Prout,” a character the comedian Alan Abel devised as part of a longstanding (1959-1962) hoax. Prout was allegedly the president and spokesman of something called The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA.) On various talk shows of the period Henry-as-Prout would discuss his desire to clothe all naked animals, citing such slogans of the Society as, “A nude horse is a rude horse.” (You can just hear him saying that, can’t you?) He was actually taken seriously, by the hosts of the shows on which he appeared and by some viewers, who sent in unsolicited donations of money. When Walter Cronkite found out he’d been duped by Henry and that Abel was behind the hoax he called him up, furious. Abel: “I’d never heard him that angry on TV — not about Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or Fidel Castro.” (Naturally; Hitler, Saddam and Castro didn’t nearly make a fool of Cronkite on national television. Nice to know Uncle Walter had his priorities right.)

SINA - Buck Henry as Prout

Henry divided his interests largely between comedic acting and screenwriting, but had his earliest success in television when he and Mel Brooks created the idiotic spy spoof Get Smart! (Henry also devised the much shorter-lived William Daniels series Mr. Nice.) His notable screenwriting credits include The Graduate (1967, with Calder Willingham), Catch-22 (1970), the smart (if initially fag-bashing) adaptation of Bill Manhoff’s The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), the wildly funny Streisand/Peter Bogdanovich hit What’s Up, Doc? (1972; Henry did the polish on a previous screenplay by Robert Benton and David Newman), Heaven Can Wait (1978) and To Die For (1995). He was a regular on That Was the Week That Was (1964–1965) and hosted Saturday Night 17 times. His best-remembered role on that show was as “Uncle Roy,” the paedophilic babysitter in sketches which, although written by two women (Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts) would almost certainly cause the censorious youth of today to experience mass cardiac arrest. Among Henry’s movie directing credits is the charming Heaven Can Wait (1978, with Warren Beatty) and as an actor his pictures include The Graduate (he’s the owlish desk clerk at the hotel where Dustin Hoffman carries out his trysts with Anne Bancroft), Catch-22 (as Lieutenant Colonel Korn), Taking Off (1970), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Heaven Can Wait (as the officious Escort), Old Boyfriends (1979), Gloria (1980), Eating Raoul (1982), The Player (1992, as himself, hilariously pitching a Graduate sequel to Tim Robbins in the opening sequence), Grumpy Old Men (1993) and Short Cuts.

This last appearance stands as a warning against unchecked improvisation: Peering up Lily Tomlin’s skirt Henry, as a boorish amateur fisherman, murmurs, “Sometimes there’s God…” This is false as hell: I doubt the man Henry was playing had ever even seen A Streetcar Named Desire, much less have been prepared to quote from it. Henry’s improvisation was an actor’s showing off his knowledge, and Robert Altman should have known better than to leave the line in the movie.


Ivan Passer, 86. 
Ivan Passer

A noted screenwriter in his native Czechoslovakia (Intimate Lighting, Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball) Passer, along with his colleague Miloš Forman, fled the country in 1969 during the Prague Spring. Forman, with his superficial charm, became an honored and successful director in America, twice winning Academy Awards® for facile work while the more honest and introspective Passer struggled. Passer nevertheless made two of the best, if least known and remembered, pictures of the 1970s and ’80s. Passer’s Born to Win (1971, also co-written, with David Scott Milton) is one of the finest of all cinematic depictions of addiction, with George Segal as a likable junkie whose life is slowly spinning out of control and Karen Black in a remarkable performance as his girlfriend. It’s one of those time-capsule New York movies of the period, although its look is far warmer and less threatening than that of The French Connection. Even better was Cutter’s Way (1981, written by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin from Newton Thornburg’s novel), one of the key American movies of its era, a picture its financer, United Artists, might have gotten behind with greater gusto had it been made six or seven years earlier, or by Robert Altman. A rich character study in the form of a low-key thriller, it contains one of Jeff Bridges’ best early performances and a pair by John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn that could scarcely be bettered. But it was a movie out of another time; the Star Wars-jazzed 1980s audience couldn’t care less.


Lord Tim Hudson (née George Timothy Hudson), 79. 

Best known as a disc-jockey, both in his native England and in Los Angeles, Hudson contributed his voice to a pair of Disney animated pictures. In The Aristocats (1970) he’s an anachronistic long-haired, bead-wearing, guitar-playing cat in 1912 Paris; he was much more memorable in The Jungle Book (1967) as the lugubrious, Liverpudlian vulture who both looks and sounds suspiciously like a certain shaggy Beatle.


Jack Kehoe, 85.

The Sting - Jones, Redford, Kehoe

The Sting: Robert Earl Jones, Robert Redford and Jack Kehoe

Kehoe was one of those actors whose presence automatically elevated the movies he was in. He studied acting with Stella Adler, and with Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. (For those who associate the “Method” solely with Lee Strasberg, it should be noted that Adler broke with the Group Theatre, and with the autocratic and wrong-headed Strasberg, in the 1930s, after a trip to Moscow to study with Stanislavski, and that it was she, not Strasberg, who taught Marlon Brando.) Among the pictures in which Kehoe appeared were The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Serpico (1973), Car Wash (1976), On the Nickel (1980), Melvin and Howard (1980), Reds (1981), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), The Untouchables (1987), D.O.A. and Midnight Run (both 1988). It was in the wonderfully-cast The Sting (1973) that I first became aware of him; he was Joe Erie, whose face Charles Durning memorably slams into a barroom table.

It says something about the nature of the movie business that Jack Kehoe’s first Hollywood role was as a bartender in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971) and one of his last, in 1990, was “Customer at Raid” in Dick Tracy 


Torn Jersey, 77.

Terry Jones

Terence Graham Parry Jones was, with his Oxford writing partner Michael Palin and the Cambridge men Eric Idle, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman (plus the American animator Terry Gilliam) one of the creators of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and, more than anyone else, responsible for the show’s unique structure. Jones’ aversion to traditional punchlines was endemic to the surrealistic nature of the show, and to much of its pleasure, but also led to its eventual dissolution; his penchant for long-form sketches, sometimes lasting the full 30 minutes, alienated Cleese (whose absence in the final series was as obvious as it was lamentable) and, one assumes, the troupe’s audience as well.

He fared better as a filmmaker: As a co-director, with Gilliam, of their feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and, solo, as the director of Life of Brian (1979). Perhaps because they were of necessity more complex than a half-hour television show and required more in the way of both characterization and of narrative, these pictures were far funnier than that last Python season, and infinitely more satisfying. Indeed, Brian is so tightly controlled and so beautifully made, in every way, one wonders why Jones never again directed a movie as good. (Neither he nor Gilliam were involved in the direction of either the 1971 And Now for Something Completely Different, a collection of their best television sketches re-shot in a more expensive format, or the very funny 1982 Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, although the latter was really just a record of the live shows the Pythons had been doing for years and not a fully-fledged saga.)

The team’s final effort, The Meaning of Life (1983) was their most elaborate (especially the charming Gilliam-directed opening, the short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance) but also their sourest and most militantly unpleasant. Grail and Brian are not merely funnier movies, they include self-contained segments that are among the Python’s most classic bits: In Grail, the French soldier taunting King Arthur; The Knights Who Say “Ni!”; the killer rabbit and The Holy Hand Grenade; the flagellants; Connie Booth as the “witch”; bringing out the dead; the anarcho-syndicalist peasants (one of whom is, of course, Jones, in drag) arguing with Arthur over his right to rule them; the Bridge of Death. And in Brian, the Shirley Bassey spoof main title; the internecine in-fighting of The People’s Front of Judea; the Latin lesson from Cleese’s Roman guard;  the rhotacistic speech impediment of Palin’s Pilate (“Stwike him, Centuwian — vewwy woughly!”), not to mention his friend Biggus Dickus; the hilariously ironic commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the cheesemakers…”); the mob chasing Brian under the mistaken belief that he’s the Messiah; and, of course, the “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” finale. In a period not especially noted for its movie comedy the Pythons, and Jones particularly, split a lot of sides with intelligent laughter.

Palin maintains that Jones was “the spirit of the Pythons,” and the warmest of the bunch. (Apart, one presumes, although naturally he would not say so, from himself. However much one admires Idle, Cleese and Chapman, one hardly thinks of them, the way one does of Jones and Palin, as a bit cuddly.) Agonizingly, for a man as verbal as Terry Jones, his final years were afflicted with progressive aphasia, a form of dementia that eventually left him unable to speak.

My personal favorite Jones moment is also my single favorite bit from the original BBC Monty Python series. Quite why this strikes me as so funny I leave to my psychiatrist, but it takes place during the extended alien invasion sketch in Episode Seven. Palin is describing the thing that ordered 48 million kilts from him, something “not so much a man as… a blancmange!“:
Python - Blancmange resized
Palin: He was a strange unearthly creature — a quivering, glistening mass…

Jones: Angus Podgorny, what do y’ mean?

It’s every bad, cliché horror/science fiction movie inquiry rolled into one, and with a wig, a pair of half-glasses and a Scots accent. Of the Pythons, only Jones and Palin, I suspect, could have made it so hilarious yet so ineffably sweet.


Sonny Grosso, 89.
The French Connection - Sonny Grosso and Roy Scheider resizedThe more likable (or, at the very least, less psychotic) of the two real-life police detectives whose exploits were chronicled somewhat fictionally in Robin Moore’s book The French Connection, and almost wholly so in the subsequent 1971 movie. What Moore either didn’t know, or downplayed, was that the massive cocaine shipment  from Marseilles that made NYPD stars of “Cloudy” Grosso and Eddie (“Popeye”) Egan was a CIA operation. Win some, lose some; the Agency had better luck importing crack in the 1980s and “suiciding” the reporter who exposed it.

Grosso, played by Roy Scheider in the picture, was cast in it as well, as was Egan; that’s Sonny next to Scheider, above. He also served as a technical adviser on that movie, on The Godfather and The Seven-Ups (1973) — almost a continuation of The French Connectionand, for television, popular 1970s cop-shows like Baretta and Kojack.

Egan was a cop people feared; Grosso was one they liked.


Jack Burns, 86.

Burns and Schreiber resized

Burns and Schreiber performing their taxi driver bit at The Hollywood Palace, 1966. (Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

A minor blip on the comedy radar screen of the 1960s and ’70s, Burns had the ill luck to replace Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show (as if anyone could replace Don Knotts) and was quickly written out of the show. He was more successful teamed with the handlebar-mustached Avery Schreiber — Burns had earlier partnered, of all people, George Carlin — whom he had met while with Second City. I remember them best for their television commercials, and for their 1973 summer replacement series The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour. (Everybody got one of those in the ’70s, even mimes.) Burns’ last minor accomplishment was as a writer, announcer and occasional performer on the short-lived Fridays, a doomed attempt by ABC to concoct a rival for Saturday Night. On Fridays. In prime-time. If I saw the Andy Kaufman incident I don’t recall it; I remember exactly one sketch from that one, involving Howdy Doody. That should give you an idea of how fresh and cutting-edge the series was.


Harriet Frank, Jr., 96.

Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch

With her husband Irving Ravetch (above, right), Frank comprised the preferred screenwriting team of the director Martin Ritt, with whom he made eight movies between 1958 and 1990. And while they occasionally worked with and for others (Vincente Minnelli, Delbert Mann, Mark Rydell, Richard Flesicher and, under a pseudonym and on a picture he disowned, Blake Edwards) the bulk of their work was for Ritt. Frank and Ravetch made their names with two Faulkner adaptations, the entertaining The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and the rather strange The Sound and the Fury (1959). Hud (1963) out of Larry McMurtry was theirs, as was the very interesting Hombre (1967) and, from Faulkner again, The Reivers (1969). They botched William Dale Jennings’ splendid original The Cowboys (1972) with a ham-fisted re-write for the ploddingly literal Mark Rydell but returned to form (and Ritt) with Conrack (1974). Frank and Ravetch wrote two well-regarded late pictures for Ritt, the gentle 1985 comedy Murphy’s Romance and 1990’s Stanley & Iris. Their best screenwriting work, however, was on Norma Rae (1979). Ritt, who was blacklisted, made from the story of the North Carolina textile union activist Crystal Lee Sutton one of a tiny handful of unabashedly pro-union American pictures, and in Frank and Ravetch’s screenplay one of the sharpest, smartest and savviest of a smart and savvy era of movies. Despite some romanticization, the movie was largely true to its subject: Its best scene, one of the greatest in 1970s American film, of Sally Field as Norma holding up a hand-lettered union sign as her co-workers slowly begin turning off their machines, happened pretty much as it’s depicted.

Norma Rae - confidence

Nearly as good, in a much less dramatic manner, is this exchange between Norma and the wonderful Rob Leibman as Reuben, the union representative fighting a losing battle at her plant, until Norma joins him. When he first signs her up for the union, Reuben smiles, “You’re the fish I wanted to hook.”

Norma Rae - Sally, Ron

Norma Rae: Well… You got me. So what the hell are you gonna do with me?
Reuben: Make a mensch outta you, kid.
Norma: You are?
Reuben: Mm-hm.
Norma: What is that?
Reuben: Somebody who goes to the old folks’ home on Saturday morning instead of playin’ golf. Somebody who puts a dollar in a blind man’s cup for a pencil.
Norma: I’d do that.
Reuben: Uh-huh. But would you take the pencil?
Norma: Of course. I paid for it.
Reuben: Somewhere between logic and charity, there falls a shadow.

I’d always felt uncomfortable taking a “prize,” however insignificant, for dispensing some eleemosynary token. Since seeing Norma Rae, I’ve dropped a few dollars but I’ve never taken another pencil.

That is the power of movies to make an impression, to get you to think, or to reconsider your thoughtlessness. And it starts, as these things nearly always do, with the thought… whose natural expression is not the image, but the word.


Fred Silverman, 82.

Fred Silverman

It will doubtless be incomprehensible to many young people that there was actually a time when television shows were not something one ordered from a streaming service and watched on-demand, whenever (and wherever) we pleased: That one actually waited an entire week to see a program (and 20 or more to see an entire season unfold), and if one missed that, had to wait for something called “summer re-runs.” For those of us who recall those antediluvian days, Silverman’s was a name to recon with. At CBS, he was behind the so-called “rural purge” of 1971 in which the ax fell on some of the network’s most popular series, to some outrage — although who could really have mourned the demises of Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D., Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies? Especially when their replacements were the likes of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Waltons and Kojak? And, with a sense of integrity that would be shocking to a network executive of today, Silverman actually stood behind the shows he approved. Without that precedent, both All in the Family and M*A*S*H would have been wiped out in their first seasons, not to mention (at NBC, to which Silverman later decamped) Hill Street Blues. I don’t make a habit of praising television programmers, but if there was such a thing, after the early 1950s, as “good television,” Silverman was responsible for programming much of it. It was he who helped develop Maude, Good Times and Rhoda as spin-offs (a new term then) and The Bob Newhart Show. Silverman greenlit his share of losers that were also hits: The Jeffersons, The Price is Right, the revived Match Game and that lox of a show for which one of the leading characters (Freddy Jones) was named for him, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! But during his watch just about the only great program on CBS for which he was not responsible — and virtually all the great television series in those years were on CBS — was The Carol Burnett Show.

Freddy Jones - Scooby Doo


At ABC, Silverman saved one bad show (Happy Days) and spun off another (Laverne and Shirley) from it. He also approved so much meretricious trash that for years his network was, while hugely profitable, a hiss and a byword to anyone with a taste that ran beyond Cheez Whiz, Burger King Whoppers and Tits ‘n’ Ass: The Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Donny & Marie, Eight is Enough, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Good Morning America, Battle of the Network Stars and…

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour.

The only times I can recall tuning the network in during those years were when Soap was on the air (if we could find it — as with the earlier The Hot l Baltimore, a lot of affiliates, particularly in the South, refused to air it) and during the broadcast of Roots. Later, at NBC, Silverman backed one bad idea after another, perhaps proving the seldom-cited corollary to Fitzgerald’s dictum: There are no third acts in American lives. True, Hill Street was his, and the wonderfully demented and frequently hilarious daytime David Letterman Show, which, while it made me roar on the few occasions when I caught it, doubtless had housewives (there were housewives then) scratching their heads from coast to coast and wondering whatever happened to that nice J. Fred Muggs.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross