Knight-errant on a mean street: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

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“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.” — Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

By Scott Ross

The Big Sleep was Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not follow-up, a taut adaptation of — and, in some ways, although it’s probably sacrilege to say so, improvement on — the somewhat over-cluttered Raymond Chandler novel that, with John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941), was one of two war-era American pictures (three, if we count Casablanca) that cemented not only Humphrey Bogart’s tough-guy persona, but the image we carried then, and carry still, of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s detective characters. Others have played Sam Spade (on radio, anyway) and Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, James Garner, Robert Mitchum and even, Heaven help us, Elliott Gould) but it’s Bogart we think of when we read those books, and Hawks’ conceptions of the “mean streets” Marlowe operated on we imagine.

The picture did not come together as easily as Falcon. There was considerable confusion in the minds, not only of Hawks and his screenwriters but, oddly, of Chandler, as to who killed the chauffeur or even whether or not he was murdered. It’s made perfectly plain in the novel, so why Chandler was fuzzy on it is baffling. (Unless his inability to remember was related to his alcoholism?) But the book has a tendency to meander, and doesn’t so much end as taper off. Worse, from Hawks’ perspective — and that of Warner Bros., which very much wanted to capitalize on the heat Bogart and Lauren Bacall generated in To Have and Have Not, and to save a suddenly valuable property from her own thespic incompetency — the daughters of Marlowe’s aged client in the novel are impossible. The younger, Carmen, is either psychotic or a moron, if not both, and the older, Vivian, a spoiled, manipulative, irredeemable rich-bitch. The screenwriters (who included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) were encouraged to get some of the teasing banter going between Marlowe and Vivian that sparked To Have and Have Not, and while Vivian may be insolent in the Chandler novel, she’s hardly encouraging, so they had their work cut out for them. Perhaps to make Vivian more available, they dropped her position in the book as the wife of a missing man and brought her into the climactic scenes as an ally for Marlowe, as well as a possible mate. When even that didn’t help, Hawks was required to re-shoot a number of scenes after the 1945 preview, and added some new ones. They improve the quality of the picture immensely, although some clarifying material was lost in the process, making the movie’s plot murkier than it needed to be.

The Big Sleep - Malone, Bogart

“Why, Miss Malone – without your glasses, you’re beautiful!

Hawks’ direction of the material, however, is first-rate. In tandem with his cinematographer, the gifted Sidney Hickox, who lit To Have and Have Not and would later shoot White Heat (1949), Hawks’ images are beautifully crisp and his staging immaculate, especially in some of the re-takes. He handles the Bogart/Bacall dynamic so well, and with such cheeky erotic command, it’s a shame the three never worked together again. (A thwarted would-be Svengali, Hawks was furious when he discovered Bacall had married Bogart.) Insolent sexiness was the one thing Bacall could do well, and her dialogue sequences with Bogie are small masterpieces of innuendo and insinuation, to a jaw-dropping degree when one considers the prevailing moral censorship of the time, as is the scene in which the bookshop proprietor (Dorothy Malone) entertains Marlowe, and her literally letting her hair down, accompanied by a discreet fade-out, tells us the two are doing a lot more in that bookstore than merely sharing a drink.

The Big Sleep - Bogart, Martha Vickers

There are other interesting sexual matters on the periphery of the narrative. In the novel, the murdered blackmailer Geiger is identified as homosexual, which was of course taboo under the Production Code, but you can’t escape the implication in the accurate design of his home in the movie, with its prissy Orientalist décor (Chandler: “a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party”), nor in the presence of the avenging angel, Geiger’s young boyfriend Carol Lundgren (Thomas Rafferty). Chandler, of course, makes his usual snide fetish of this, reassuring his (male, hetero) readers that, despite Carol’s deadliness with a gun and his butch physicality, no faggot (his word, not mine) can throw a punch. Presumably, his wrist isn’t stiff enough to land a good slug. And, just as Lundgren’s reasons for his revenge killing is obscured, his favored direction — presumably, based on the position of the em dash, “Go fuck yourself” — is diluted here as “Take a jump, Jack,” but I doubt a 1946 audience had difficulty translating it. And while Carmen visits Marlowe’s office she does not, as in the book, invade his bed, or attempt to trick him into letting her shoot him. Yet she’s still clearly a nymphomaniac, a word I use advisedly, in its psycho-medical sense, which is as one with her general air of (again, physiological) moronism. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything on The Big Sleep in praise of Martha Vickers’ quite eerie performance as Carmen, but her instincts are unerring, especially those blank looks she gives as her initial response to Marlowe’s sarcasm before she realizes he’s joshing her, and her impact is considerable.

Those who have only seen a couple of Bogart movies may think they have him pegged as a rough-edged romantic, and can see little difference between his performance as Sam Spade and this one. But Bogart’s Spade is, despite his tolerant amusement at the den of thieves he’s stumbled into, tightly coiled. He’s frustrated, and angry, not merely at the gallery of prevaricators with which he’s surrounded but by his loveless affair with his slain partner’s wife and perhaps over something else, some disappointment or betrayal we can only guess at. When he slaps Elisha Cook, Jr’s Wilmur, or, later, knocks him out, there is genuine fury there, as there is when he “pretends” to throw a violent fit of pique in the Fat Man’s hotel suite; you know it isn’t entirely an act. Bogart’s Marlowe is, by contrast, more laconic, and emotionally contained. He uses his fists, or his gun, only when there’s no other option, and does so dispassionately. And although he’s also amused by the outrageous, and as cynical as Spade, he has the ethics of a knight-errant. Spade admits he’s tempted by the lure of easy money, and turns Brigid O’Shaunessy over to the homicide cops for reasons of professional ethics even he doesn’t entirely understand. Marlowe keeps his reasons to himself, but is dogged both in protecting his client and in pursuit of what he has been contracted to do, and no matter how much personal danger that doggedness puts in his path. He’s easier with women (or at least with some women) than Spade and, even when he knows Vivian is lying her head off to him, is more intrigued by her than annoyed at her lies. You also sense that he expects to be lied to, even by his clients, and enjoys watching the process and trying to discover what they’re lying about. And while he’s no one’s fool, he seems to genuinely like people more than Spade, whether they’re agreeable to him, hostile, or trying to lead him down a false trail, something Bacall’s Vivian chides him about (“You like too many people”) when he’s tied up and wondering whether he’ll get away or be slowly tortured to death.

The Big Sleep - Bogart in bookshop (resized)

“You do sell books… mmmm?”

Bogart (and his screenwriters and director) have some fun with the process of detection, occasionally in ways that twit the Breen Office, as when Marlowe visits Geiger’s alleged rare book shop. In Chandler, he assumes the persona of a stereotypical, lisping pansy-type. In the movie Bogart raises the brim of his hat, lowers his shades and mugs in an outrageous, indeterminately effeminate manner one suspects Hawks figured would be just eccentric enough to defy anyone pinning it down definitely as gay. As with John Huston’s pulling off the various homosexual characters in Falcon, a contemporary viewer may feel less offense at the implication than amusement that the people involved got away with it.

Hawks honors his source as much as possible, albeit with some variations and elisions, even to the extent of replicating the autumn Los Angeles rains that are the novel’s near-constant atmospheric phenomena. The action of the book is necessarily compacted, and streamlined, as with Vivian no longer being the wife of the missing Sean (Rusty in Chandler) Reagan. Much of the dialogue, other than the suggestive byplay between Bogie and Bacall, comes directly from the novel, and the action follows it very closely. The only major change is the explosive, cleverly constructed finale which Hawks, with his habitual disregard for crossing the same river twice, recycled for the climax of Rio Bravo (also written by Leigh Brackett) thirteen years later, and since Rio Bravo is such a damnably entertaining picture, I suspect only those who dislike Hawks’ movies generally get worked up about that. There’s some marvelous repartee between Bogart and Bacall in the re-imagined sequences, including an improvised Ma-and-Pa routine between Marlowe and Vivian and an unseen police officer they confuse and antagonize in equal measure. (Bogart’s “Oh, I wouldn’t like that” in response to a buzz of a line over the telephone makes it clear the cop has just suggested something identical to Carol Lundgren’s preferred instruction in the novel.) And if the Marlowe of the movie is not as disgusted with his own, unwitting, complicity in the process of death as Chandler’s detective, neither is he indifferent to it.

The Big Sleep - Cook, Bogart

As usual with Hawks, the supporting roles are wonderfully cast, and the performances, however brief, perfectly modulated: Dorothy Malone’s sharp, sly bookseller, who never makes a wrong move even when required to remove her glasses and let down her hair to get a reaction from Marlowe; John Ridley’s alternately suave and dangerous casino proprietor who knows far more than he ever lets on; Peggy Knudsen as his supposedly estranged wife; Regis Toomey’s nicely judged police inspector; Charles D. Brown’s butler, less silkily insinuating than his coeval in Chandler; Sonia Darrin as a bad girl two men die for and who isn’t worth a beating let alone a murder; Charles Waldron’s strikingly honest and unself-pitying old reprobate; and, especially, Elisha Cook, Jr’s low-key hustler, hoping to parlay a little information into a payday. “Harry Jones” is almost the flip-side of Wilmur in Falcon, soft-spoken, un-threatening, courageous when it matters and even capable of being mildly offended at one of Marlowe’s nastier cracks; his understated reaction shames the speaker, who slowly (if too late) begins to appreciate the true-blue quality of the “little man,” even in the face of certain, and particularly unpleasant, death.

Max Steiner’s score is briefer and less obtrusive than usual, and he came up with a couple of very fine motifs, especially the minor-key love theme for Bogart and Bacall. When even as bombastic an auditory scene-stealer as Steiner can be inveighed upon to embrace subtlety, it’s a pretty good indication that something more interesting than normal was going on.

The Big Sleep - poster

Copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Elephant, fly: “Dumbo” (1941)

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By Scott Ross

The Disney Pinocchio (1940) — which to my astonishment I just realized will be 80 years old this year — is my favorite, not merely of the Disney features but of all animated movies. It is the fulfillment of Snow White‘s promise, but without Fantasia‘s pretension or Bambi‘s anthropomorphic cutseying-up of what is, basically, the grim realism of its source. (Felix Salten’s novel is red in tooth and claw, not to mention hoof.)* Pinocchio‘s contours, its scope, its design and effects, were and are what they were intended to be: An overwhelming visual and emotional experience. Its darknesss, which some see as cold, appeals to me, and seems entirely appropriate: The corrupt world is arrayed against Pinocchio, and his journey is proving his mettle in the face of temptation, and even death. He stands up to the obstacles and comes out the other side, fulfilling the basic requirements of a fairy tale. Pinocchio is a work of high art, both entrancing and profoundly disturbing. Dumbo, by contrast, is a cartoon, caricatured and brightly colored, like a child’s dream of the circus before he attends one and his illusions are forever shattered by the seedy underbelly of sawdust reality.

Dumbo does not aspire to the messy, unpredictable mantle of great art and, maybe as a consequence, achieves instead a kind of minor-scale perfection. This absolute charmer about the elephant child whose freakishly large ears prove an irresistible asset was made, largely (and tellingly) while Uncle Walt was off Good-Neighboring in South America; perhaps as a consequence it’s tighter (it runs only slightly over an hour) and less kitsch-prone and bathetic than some of the Disney features that would follow, yet it is arguably the most emotionally-charged of any Disney release. Its directness and simplicity are a tonic, its humor is gentle, and its impulse to the deliberately artistic limited to an ingratiating Surrealist dream sequence in which vaguely threatening pink elephants mix and mutate in an increasing frenzy until they explode, resolving gracefully into the beautiful, benign little pink clouds of a Florida morning.

Dumbo flying elephant (Roll-a-book)

The story began with a little-seen book for children called Dumbo, the Flying Elephant by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, published by Roll-a-book Publishers, Inc. (See Michael Barrier’s informative essay The Mysterious Dumbo Roll-a-Book) whose black-and-white drawings very obviously served as models for the Disney animators. Wisely, and cleverly, the story men (who included Disney veterans Bill Peet and Joe Rinaldi) replaced the robin who inspires Dumbo with the circus-savvy Timothy Mouse, voiced with urban bravado by Edward Brophy, although most of the incidents of the original remained. Dumbo‘s is a streamlined story, uncluttered and sincere, and is helped enormously by the fact that its protagonist, essentially an infant, is mute. The picture is not, but its first quarter is chary of dialogue, apart from the smiling officiousness of a talkative stork (voiced by the lanky Sterling Holloway and drawn by Art Babbitt to resemble him) and the insensitive remarks of a harem of alternately pompous and gossiping elephant cows led by Verna Felton’s Matriarch. Before Dumbo’s arrival, and very often thereafter, the picture is primarily visual — and musical, what with its affecting underscore by Oliver Wallace and atmospheric songs by him, Frank Churchill and the lyricist Ned Washington.

Dumbo’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo, has exactly one line in the movie, and even more than the elephants, the blustery German Ringmaster (Herman Bing) and the now infamous crows of the final quarter, the most voluble character is Timothy Mouse, the elephant child’s adviser and protector. Like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, Timothy is the movie’s conscience, and a typical sort of Hollywood character of the time: The street-wise, somewhat blustery, wisecracking, slang-spouting urbanite. One of the busiest character actors of the 1930s and ’40s, Edward Brophy was usually either a cop of a gangster, and (as with Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, who gave vocal life to Jiminy) a contemporary audience would have instantly recognized the sound of his voice. It’s almost impossible not to love Timothy, because for all his toughness, he alone stands up for little Dumbo after Mrs. Jumbo, enraged by the cruelty of some vicious human brats, is penned up as “mad.” More, he makes smoothing the way for Dumbo his entire focus; he’s the loyal big brother we who got picked on wished we’d had, and the unspoken irony is that the relative sizes of protector and protected are reversed.

Dumbo‘s look is unique in the Disney canon, especially of those features following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It lacks that shaded, deep, expensive appearance that was the hallmark of Disney feature animation, and it’s far more stylized than its predecessors. Many of the figures in the crowd scenes are literally faceless, an effect that is especially notable in the sequence near the beginning where the Roustabouts (and their elephant helpers) raise the Big Top. Yet most of the characters are more overtly “cartoony” than those in the features that preceded it. The circus animals don’t look like real tigers, kangaroos, gorillas, hyenas or hippos (although the elephants are rather accurate) and the people are caricatures. Their designs are simpler than in Snow White, Fantasia or Pinocchio yet we don’t feel in any way cheated, especially with Dumbo and his mother. Affectionate love between parent and child has seldom been as exquisitely represented as it is with these two; there’s a brief sequence in which Dumbo engages in hide-and-seek with Mrs. Jumbo, running between her huge legs and smiling ecstatically, his little trunk raised and his eyes closed in sheer pleasure when she tags him, that is not only the last word in charm but perfectly encapsulates the way parents (especially mothers) and small children (including baby animals) play together. Along with the great animator Vladimir “Bill” Tytla’s beautiful realization of little Dumbo and Wallace’s charming, oboe-based theme for him, this sweet, unselfconsious play cements the emotional bond between Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo.

Dumbo and Mrs Jumbo

That connection is so naturally strong that, when she is chained up in her cell, Dumbo’s mother sways back and forth in numb, hopeless despair, we see her son, in the elephant tent, moving back and forth almost identically. This may be a bit studied, but the ultimate proof of the filmmakers’ mastery over the problem of imbuing drawings with life and giving them power over the viewer’s senses is the astonishingly fulsome emotional response evoked by Dumbo’s late-night visit to Mrs. Jumbo. You may not, as I do when I see this sequence, shed tears like a child, but I think you’d have to be made of something close to stone not to at least be moved by it. Its direct appeal to the emotions, and its simplicity of action, and of feeling, skirts bathos and becomes something approaching the profound, and which would have been spoiled by dialogue, or uncontrolled keening. Disney isn’t often accused of restraint, but the subtlety of this scene, which every adult who saw it as a child can instantly recall, speaks to his, and his staff’s, seemingly innate understanding of psychology.

Although the sequence is accompanied by a song (“Baby Mine,” with music by Churchill) there is no sense that Mrs. Jumbo is singing it; it’s a reflection of her inner being, and Washington’s lyrics are comprised of words and phrases with which any loving mother — or child — can identify. For a movie as music-heavy as Dumbo, few of its many songs are sung by a character in it. Only the “Song of the Roustabouts” and “When I See an Elephant Fly” (and a brief number by the circus clowns as they go off to ask the Ringmaster for a raise) can be considered musical numbers in the traditional sense. Everything else, from “Look Out for Mr. Stork” and “Casey, Jr.” in the opening minutes to the comically nightmarish “Pink Elephants on Parade” is performed off-screen by The Sportsman Quartet, the singer Betty Noyes (she performed “Baby Mine” here and, later, dubbed Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain) or, in the case of the Roustabouts’ song, the King’s Men. The only song sung by the characters on screen is, not coincidentally, the best number in what I consider one of the finest song scores ever written for any movie, of any kind.

Dumbo - Crows

Which brings us to Dumbo’s great controversy. It can, I suppose, be argued that the quintet of black crows who show up in the movie’s “third act” is a racist daydream, but it should be remembered that, aside from the lead bird, who was voiced by Cliff Edwards, the voices of the others in the quintet were members of the Hall Johnson Choir, including the actors James Baskett (later Uncle Remus in Song of the South, for which he was given a special Academy Award™) and Nick Stewart and Johnson himself, who voices the Deacon; that their joshing jive-talk was taken directly from the “backchat” on records by Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong (and, one assumes, Fats Waller; one of the crows is called “Fats”); and that the live models for their steps, animated with marvelously loose-limbed joi de vivre by Ward Kimball, were the black dance duo the Jackson Brothers. I realize I am courting opprobrium by saying so but it should also be remembered that then, as now, sensitivity to slang and idiom are a preoccupation of middle-class black intellectuals who apparently have never talked with a person who didn’t go to college, or listened to a jazz or rap recording. I am the furthest thing from a disbeliever in the necessity of intellectual uplift, but a belief in the importance of education and pretending that many (perhaps most?) people in America speak or write grammatically are necessarily mutually exclusive. While I understand that representations of black reality are matters usually best left to black creators, if we accept that a cracker can only be written by a white writer, a Jew by a Jewish writer, a gay man by a gay writer, a woman by a woman — if we buy into the sort of literary and popular segregation that is unhealthy both for art and for the culture at large — we not only junk almost everything that’s come before, but place unreasonable and, I think, frankly racialist as well as reactionary, restrictions on the creative impulse.†

Although some black critics, writers and cultural commentators of the time were offended by the birds, and while the Disney artists might have been more sensitive to the prevailing popular culture stereotypes of the previous eras, particularly in movies, the crows in Dumbo are not only the liveliest characters in the picture, they’re among the most appealing supporting characters the studio ever created. They bring an exuberance, and a relaxed, happy infusion of jive, into the picture, and they got a great song — the best in the score — in “When I See an Elephant Fly.” The punning word-play of Washington’s charming lyrics, coupled with the swing of Wallace’s infectious melody, lift the sequence into the realm of the sublime. Some have called the crows bullies, but surely this is an over-simplification. They’re not picking on Dumbo, although Timothy understandably thinks they are. They’ve just seen an elephant in a tree; it seems to me that to react with humor is the sanest thing they could do under the circumstance. And it’s their smart psychological move in providing the “Magic Feather” that gives Dumbo the confidence he needs to do deliberately what in his champagne-stupor he did without thinking.

The supervising director on Dumbo was Ben Sharpsteen, who with Hamilton Luske also supervised Pinocchio, and the sequence directors were figures such as Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, and Jack Kinney. I don’t know what Kinney contributed, but he became the director of the great Goofy shorts when the analytic Babbitt, who created and developed the character, was fired during the Disney animator’s strike that began just after Dumbo was completed, so we can assume he worked on some of the more overtly comic moments in the picture. Many of Disney’s veterans were busy with Bambi during the production of Dumbo, giving some younger, less seasoned artists the chance to show what they could do. Among the animators who worked on it, aside from Kimball, were fellow future “Nine Old Men” Les Clark, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang (“Woolie”) Reitherman, Eric Larson and (although uncredited) Frank Thomas, and the junior animators included Walt Kelly (also a casualty of the strike), “Mickey” master Fred Moore, Preston Blair, Basil Davidovich, Michael Lah, the future Peanuts guru Bill Melendez, Paul Murry  (later, with Floyd  Gottfrfiedsen, one of two great Mickey Mouse and Goofy comic book artists) and (also uncredited) John Sibley and Irv Spector. Maurice Noble, Chuck Jones’ brilliant designer and sometimes co-director, worked on character design and the great Al Dempster worked on the backgrounds. That’s pretty much an all-star aggregation; Marc Davis, Ollie Johnson and Milt Kahl are just about the only Disney masters who didn’t put in time on Dumbo.

Dumbo - Timothy as Subconscious

While the entire picture is wonderfully designed and animated, I think we may assume the infusion of young talent into it is likely responsible for its most unusual elements. There are marvelous little curlicues that pop up throughout Dumbo, little comic and atmospheric touches which, despite the simpler designs, make an impact. During the circus parade, for example, the “ferocious” tigers (who are almost certainly the work of Jack Kinney) lie in a sleepy pile and a gorilla who, after howling in savage fury and shaking the bars of his caravan car realizes he’s pulled out one of them and quickly slips it back in place; he’s a performer, and he’s sheepishly embarrassed by having gone over the top. The circus locomotive, Casey Jones, Jr., is anthropomorphized, with a human face and a sentient whistle; when the car behind the engine bangs into it, the whistle hoots as if Casey has just been goosed. When the Ringmaster strips for bed he’s seen through the film of his tent, in silhouette, a gag which is repeated to even better comic effect later, when we see the clowns disrobing, their performance bodies at variance with their actual ones. They animators also enjoy a touch of the macabre; when Timothy sneaks into the Ringmaster’s tent to plant an idea in his mind favorable to Dumbo, his shadow is seen on the tent wall, grotesquely enlarged and looking like that of Max Schreck in Nosferatu. And when he takes on the persona of the Ringmaster’s Subconscious, he wraps himself in the bed-sheet like a spectre, even though he can’t be seen by the man into whose ear he’s dropping suggestions. (Timothy is a bit of a method actor.)

Music Men. (Above, left) Frank Churchill; (right) Ned Washington; (bottom) Walt Disney with Oliver Wallace.

I don’t think Oliver Wallace’s music can be over-praised. His theme for Dumbo is both softly plaintive and expressively playful, and I suspect it was that, and his music for the songs “Pink Elephants on Parade” and “When I See an Elephant Fly” that won him and Frank Churchill the 1942 Scoring Oscar™.‡ Churchill’s songs with the lyricist Larry Morey for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were a large part of that movie’s appeal (he also composed “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”) but his work in Dumbo is a bit conventional compared to Wallace’s. And while almost any music could have played under Dumbo’s visit to his mother and the scene would still have packed an emotional wallop, “Baby Mine” is a nearly perfect lullaby, so I don’t mean to pillory him. Washington, who later became a fixture in the production of “movie theme songs” following the phenomenal success of High Noon in 1952, had a remarkable range as a lyricist, not merely from film to film or score to score but song to song. “Pink Elephants on Parade” is almost Gilbertian in its fantastic rhyme-schemes, and “When I See an Elephant Fly” contains a set of lyrics so drunk on word-play I don’t imagine Yip Harburg would have been ashamed to have written them.

Dumbo - Pink Elephants on Parade

The Pink Elephants sequence illustrates better than anything else in the picture the merging of great songwriting, imaginative design and brilliant realization. And it’s beautifully situated in the narrative. I wonder if children of today, raised less on the cartoon tropes of the 1930s and ’40s (and even the ’20s) than we of the late baby-boom television generation, quite understand the concept of seeing hallucinatory pink elephants after a drunken tear (they’re actually an indicator of delirium tremens.) That’s the context here: Dumbo and Timothy, having drunk deeply from champagne-polluted water, enter a kind of inebriated fugue state wherein their shared vision is completely subsumed by fuchsia pachyderms. Beyond the wild squash-and-stretch permutations the animators achieve, the sequence is funny as an idea: A drunken elephant calf hallucinating the human conception of pink elephants. It’s also a strangely beautiful sequence, particularly toward the end when the images are rendered as pink and blue pastel outlines, and the whole thing is a staggeringly successful exercise in Surrealism. (It was so good the Disney animators unfortunately imitated it 27 years later, to diminished effect, in the  derivative “Heffalumps and Woozels” sequence for the 1968 featurette Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Even the Sherman Brothers couldn’t work up much of a song for that one.)

I called Dumbo a tonic earlier, and it had a positive effect on its makers as well as its audience. Stretched increasingly thin financially due to Walt’s many money-losing war contracts and reeling from the financial failures of both Fantasia and Pinocchio, the Disney studio desperately needed a hit. Aside from Bambi (which also lost money) Dumbo would be the last bright animated light at Disney in many a long year, until another unpretentious feature called Cinderella returned the company to artistic and fiscal profitability. Naturally, the current Disney “creative” team, which has never had an original idea in its collective life, authorized a live-action, plot-heavy, Tim Burton-directed “remake” in 2019, which ran nearly an hour longer than the original, was focused (sacrilege!) on human beings, cut the songs(!) and which, alas (but also predictably) made, proportionally, a lot more money than Dumbo did in 1941. But I don’t have to believe any of that if I don’t want to.

Dumbo_1941_final


*Although some argue that the movie does soften the Collodi novel, not least in the cricket the book’s wooden boy smashes against a wall when he chides him mutating into Pinnoochio’s Official Conscience, Jiminy Cricket.

†This sort of reflexive sniping not only stifles good work, it obliterates it: It’s what ultimately has kept Disney’s 1946 Song of the South out of circulation, not only in theatres but on home video, largely I think due to a lack of understanding that the picture’s setting is post-war, not antebellum. Floyd Norman, the Disney studio’s first black animator, has little patience with the Dumbo controversy; see his blog essay “Black Crows and Other Nonsense.”

‡It would have been nice had one of those two songs also won, as “When You Wish Upon a Star” did the year before — “Baby Mine” was nominated — but with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s wistful “The Last Time I Saw Paris” copping the award, I doubt there were many grumbles about the eventual winner… except, interestingly, by Kern himself; he was upset that he won for something not written for a movie, and petitioned to change the rules concerning nomination.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

The man from “The Boys”

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By Scott Ross

Mart Crowley died earlier this month at the age of 84. It is probably difficult for those born in or after the 1970s to comprehend this, but there was a time, and not so long ago, when homosexuality was so terrible a spectre that, even in the field of entertainment, where gay men were legion, there were only two ways to depict fags: 1) As comic, cowardly, limp-wristed prissy swishers who sold antiques, cut hair, designed clothing, squealed like schoolgirls and could always be counted upon to make the hero look like Victor Mature even if he was as wispy as Elisha Cook, Jr.; or 2) as vicious, conscienceless, sadistic/misogynist killers who had to be put down, preferably with as much brutality as could be mustered. Even our greatest, then-living playwright had to disguise his gay characters, or obfuscate their sexuality, ore pretend their sexual activity was shameful, from the ’30s right through the 1960s… and that at a time when the stage was otherwise 50 years ahead of the movies in what could be depicted, and discussed. In such an atmosphere, Mart Crowley’s 1968 play The Boys in the Band hit New York as a cultural tsunami; what was intended for five-performances Off-Broadway became a 1,000-performance run, the play was recorded in its entirety by A&M Records (Herb Alpert’s label; he was the “A”) and it was filmed, pretty much intact and with the same cast that played it on the stage, by William Friedkin in 1970. (Note the photo of the marquee above. So much for Friedkin’s possessive credit. Cinema Center knew it was a playwright’s movie.)

Boys in the Band - Crowley and cast (Laurence Luckinbill, Frederick Combs, Robert La Tourneaux, Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Keith Prentice, Peter White and Reuben Greene)

Crowley (far left) and the cast of The Boys in the Band: Laurence Luckinbill, Frederick Combs, Robert La Tourneaux, Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Keith Prentice, Peter White and Reuben Greene.

Crowley, whose friend Natalie Wood hired him as her assistant largely to give him time to complete the play, wrote about himself, and those he knew, in those antediluvian, pre-Stonewall days of the furtive closet in which the only public homosexual the wider society knew of was Truman Capote (and, because he didn’t say so and neither did anyone else, for attribution, some people probably weren’t even entirely certain about him.) While Michael, the play’s bitchy, self-hating central figure, might be thought of as a self-portrait, there was likely some element of Crowley’s persona in all the characters, some of men he knew and some (hold on to yourself) he simply made up. This, not to shock the many now who think that every writer, no matter his or her genre, is constantly engaged in autobiography, is what writers do.

Some felt The Boys in the Band was hopelessly dated when the Stonewall riots took place a year after the play premiered, but this is nonsense. Were the battles the Youngers faced in A Raisin in the Sun obliterated due to the 1963 March on Washington, or because the Voting Right Act was passed two years later? Did Judgment at Nuremburg eliminate anti-Semitism? Not that things didn’t get better, for many, and fast — too fast for the prevailing culture; nasty homophobic jokes and smears in the press and popular entertainment, and legislation in the public sphere, continued apace in the 1970s, but Allen Ginsberg, who witnessed the second night of rioting, famously observed, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful — they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.” The “boys” in The Boys in the Band all have that look, to one degree or another, even the exuberant flaming-queen Emory. Indeed, the late Doric Wilson, who was also there, later incorporated Michael and his friend and former lover Donald into his wonderful Stonewall play Street Theatre, where they whinge from the sidelines, their bitchiness about the participants camouflaging their fear that they might actually have to stop cringing and stand, if not proud, at least unafraid, before the straight world.

The Boys in the Band R-1773445-1256990810

Crowley never had a hit like The Boys in the Band again, but while I’m sure he would have enjoyed one, he almost didn’t need it. (Orson Welles to Boganovich: “Peter, you only need one.”) His comic drama stands as the embodiment, bold and utterly, un-apologetically queer at a time when men were routinely entrapped, and arrested for so much as dancing with each other in a bar, of a time and place, just before some form of liberation became possible. When I discovered the LP at 17, it took the top of my head off. As I had just emerged from my own sexual confusion, it was astounding to hear through my headphones this stageful of men being themselves, and flagrantly: Dishing full-throatedly. Discussing matters of intimate sexuality as if there were no straights in the audience, or within twenty miles of their voices, with deliciously obscene abandon and, by yes, camping it up. And indulging in badinage that even one of my tender years recognized could bear comparison to the wit of Wilde and Coward. There are few modern plays (or movies, for that matter) with as many quotable lines, and you can probably number those on two hands with some fingers left over.*

Harold: Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be?


Michael: In spring a young man’s fancy turns to a fancy young man.


Donald: Thanks to the silver screen your neurosis has got style.


Harold: You look like you’ve been rimming a snowman.


Michael: There’s one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don’t have to look your best.


Donald: What’s good for the gander is good for the gander.


Harold: Give me Librium or give me meth!


Emory: If it’s the one I met, he’s about as straight as the Yellow Brick Road.


Michael: What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?
Donald: A queen doing a Bette Davis imitation.


Harold: Michael doesn’t have charm, Donald. He has counter-charm.


Cowboy: I lost my grip doing my chin ups and fell on my heels and twisted my back.
Emory: You shouldn’t wear heels when you do chin ups!


Harold: What I am, Michael, is a 32 year-old, ugly, pock marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamned business but my own. And how are you this evening?


Cowboy: I’m not a steal. I cost twenty dollars.


Michael: It’s not always the way it is in plays. Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story!


Harold: Well, that’s the pot calling the kettle beige.


Michael: As my father said to me when he died in my arms, “I don’t understand any of it. I never did.” Turn the lights out when you leave.

The Boys in the Band - movie poster

Not everyone loved the play, or the movie. Pauline Kael likened its characters to “the gathering of bitchy ladies in The Women, but with a 40s-movie bomber-crew cast: a Catholic, a Jew, a Negro, a hustler, one who is butch, and one who is nellie, and so on. They crack jokes while their hearts are breaking.” But better this than the sort of reflexive, prim inanities one reads about the play now on pages like Wikipedia, where Crowley’s entry refers to The Boys in the Band as his “gay-themed play.” Gay-themed?!? This, about a piece of theatre whose cast last is entirely composed of gay men (and one possible closet-case) who talk almost exclusively about matters of note to homosexual men, and in which sexuality, and the characters’ attitudes toward it, is the overriding concern!

Crowley may have been, to a degree, a victim of his own success. The play that made him famous also limited him (this was not, after all, the time of “out” gay screenwriters winning Academy Awards) as the times marginalized the work itself. And what really dated the play was not Stonewall, but the decade that followed it: By the time we had gotten through Anita Bryant’s crusade in Florida, the Briggs Initiative in California, the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk in San Francisco and such ancillary items as a deeply biased CBS News “special report” that in a mere hour managed to slander every gay man and Lesbian in America, that wounded look Ginsberg referred to had been replaced by one of utter fury.

And, lucky us, AIDS was waiting in the wings.

Having come out the other side of that devastation,† which I remain persuaded was CIA in origin (oh, not aimed at queers — we were just collateral damage — but at Africans) the turn of the century seemed the right time to re-examine Mart Crowley and his most famous play. It was re-published, along with the lesser-known A Breeze from the Gulf (a sort of unofficial, autobiographical prelude to Boys) and another, For Reasons That Remain Unclear, and carrying a new introduction by the author, in 1996. It was also recently given a somewhat starry Broadway production with a cast entirely composed of “openly gay” actors (whatever that means; who ever identifies as “openly straight”?)‡ including Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. The theatre writer and critic Peter Falicia believes the play helped inspire Stonewall, which I beg some leave to doubt, and that it altered the attitudes of many heterosexuals who saw it, which is more likely.

Mart Cowley did of a heart attack following open heart surgery on 7 March, 2020. There were times in the years after the play and movie when, as his old friend (and onetime “Boy”) Laurence Luckinbill notes in American Theatre, Crowley despaired, and nearly succumbed. But he survived to 84 when many of his generation (and, later, my own) were dead before 44. And what will be more important to future generations, his most well known play survives. As a period-piece perhaps, or even an object lesson, but either way The Boys go on. This one-time, fumbling, uncertain gay adolescent now sends his thanks to a man he never met but whose characters still live within his ageing breast. Thanks for turning the lights on, Mart/Michael, and for keeping them on when you left.

Mart Crowley 1970

Crowely at the time of the movie.

*My list, for what it’s worth (and with minimal thought), of ten: The Importance of Being Earnest, Pygmalion, Private Lives, A Streetcar Named Desire, Waiting for Godot, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Man for All Seasons, The Odd Couple, 40 Years On, Angels in America.

†Although nearly a million people still die from HIV/AIDS every year — 13,000 of them in America. That’s hardly a victory. But its terror has largely receded here, if only among those not affected.

‡Please don’t bother telling me it’s about being “out.” I came out as a teenager, in 1979. But I don’t refer to myself as being “openly gay” any more than I identify as “openly Caucasian,” or “openly Scots-Irish.” And yes, I recognize the difference. I’m not quite a moron.

Text (other than Crowley’s dialogue) copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Watching the Watchmen: “Cromwell” (1970) and “The Train Robbers” (1973)

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By Scott Ross

When multinational corporations, most of them in no way related to the various entertainment industries that provided the bulk of what Americans read, saw and heard, began to take over the major movie studios beginning in the early 1960s —  these would eventually include oil giants, insurance holding companies and even a firm known primarily for its parking lots and, later, a major soda-pop maker* —  a vital change took place in how the people who ran them thought about movies. No one who has studied the big Hollywood studios even cursorily can fail to observe that, crudity, vulgarity and lack of education to one side, the men who ran M-G-M, Paramount, Columbia, RKO, Universal, 20th Century-Fox, the Goldwyn Studio and Warner Bros. genuinely loved movies, and in a way that would be completely alien to the suits who later took over their dream factories. Moreover, these men understood that, however much they ran after mass public taste and tried to cater to it, each new picture they made, no matter how like the last successful picture they made, was unique. Unlike a shoe or a car or a service station or a parking lot or a bottle of Coke, no two movies were identical. It was that basic fact of movies that the corporate types failed to grasp, and which led to the idiotic five-year industry-wide chasing after of a Sound of Music style hit musical, the heedless (and fruitless) pursuit of which nearly bankrupted the lot of them.

The inability of the corporate mind to comprehend something as variable as popular art is the primary reason a) for the cookie-cutter mentality of most big movies and b) why corporations should steer clear of movie-making. It was noted, in the ’90s, that Japanese manufacturing concerns were baffled by the American entertainment companies they had purchased. They were unable to fathom a product that was not based on the mass-production model, which movies cannot. Motion pictures, as I noted above, are not a line of tape decks. Not that this basic fact of enterprise has stopped the businessmen owners of most studios from trying to make them that way. It’s one of the reasons sequels are so popular among the suits.

Look: It’s always been difficult to get anything worthwhile made in the movie industry, where the cost of production is high and courage is required to gamble on a picture that challenges the viewer, upsets the established norms or otherwise threatens to be of interest primarily to those above the common denominators of native intelligence. And that’s where pop movie critics came in.

These reviewers — for genuine critics they were not — tended to write for newspapers, where they could be counted upon by their editors (and, of greater importance to their publishers, the paper’s corporate advertisers) to praise dreck and pan originality; to maintain the established order and smack down anyone who threatened to upend it. Bosley Crowther at the New York Times was the model in this, although he was hardly alone. When the big newsweeklies gained ascendancy, they too offered up a parade of styleless hacks and soulless nonentities, which is one of the reasons no one at Time or Newsweek knew what to do with men like John O’Hara, Manny Farber and James Agee. It took a critic for a general interest magazine (Pauline Kael at The New Yorker) to elevate the discussion, and that more than a decade following Agee’s death and after she had floundered at popular venues like McCall’s and The New Republic. And in the period during which Kael was establishing herself and proving to be the best thing that had happened to movie criticism since the days when Farber and Agee were writing for The Nation, the paperback capsule collection took off, a phenomenon that likely warmed any number of corporate hearts, turning movie criticism as it did away from sharp, idiosyncratic (and thus, unpredictable) rumination and back to easily digested consumer guidance.

I first discovered the late Steven H. Scheuer’s Movies on TV in my 5th grade teacher Miss Anderson’s bookcase of paperbacks, which she graciously allowed us to borrow from, in late 1972 or early ‘73.† As I was then slowly becoming more interested in movies (beyond Disney animated features, I mean) leafing through Scheuer’s book and reading his capsule reviews was, for a budding film novice, an exciting activity. I was curious about how he judged movies I had seen, mostly on television, but also about those I’d heard of and hadn’t yet viewed, and those I’d never heard of at all. Discovery is half the fun, after all, of examination. A couple of years later I got a copy of the updated edition (Scheuer’s first was published in 1959) in my Christmas stocking, as well as the new reprint of Leonard Maltin’s then-titled TV Movies, which had debuted in 1969 when its compiler was all of 19. When I had money of my own, I purchased new editions every two years (the schedule both used until Maltin began updating yearly), and used them, as I still do, as reference material. Yet even at the age of 14 I recognized that Scheuer’s was the better book; being less concerned with quantity than quality, his reviews were longer, and more obviously written as genuine (if necessarily brief) criticism: Scheuer was less tolerant of trash, and less influenced by Hollywood; his reviews were tougher, and more literary (or at least, stylish) and he more often pointed his readers to worthwhile movies they might never have discovered on their own. It was in his book, for example, that one found reference to the largely unknown, or forgotten, X-rated 1970 cinematic adaptation of Tropic of Cancer starring Rip Torn, which I have never seen cited anywhere else since. Where Maltin & Co. bested Scheuer, aside from including more entries, was in a greater accuracy regarding running-times, and including longer cast lists. TV Movies (published by Signet; Scheuer’s was a Bantam book) was also laid out in a superior typeface, and the asterisks in Maltin’s capsule reviews were both more elegant and easier on the eye.

Despite my own adolescent addiction to these books, with which I sometimes argued vociferously, I sincerely hope no adult ever used either to decide whether to watch a movie or to avoid one. (Although in my heart I know many did.) Especially as, to conserve space, both Maltin and Scheuer began cutting some reviews entirely and drastically shortening others, removing the very thing that made them interesting to begin with: The occasional quirky line or observation that stuck in the heads of movie-besotted teenagers. (My best friend and I each had our favorite quips from the mid-’70s, which in subsequent editions we discovered were missing.) As with that other influential consumer guide, the Siskel and Ebert show with its reduction of movie criticism to thumbs up or down, the Maltin and Scheuer books, whatever their relative virtues, not only helped dumb down discourse on film; they also, to a dismaying degree, kept potential viewers away from pictures they might otherwise have seen, and enjoyed. As a young man, I let what George Lucas later termed (for the nasty two-headed dragon in his doleful collaboration with Ron Howard, Willow) the “Eborsisk”‡ steer me away from movies when they were new which I later saw, and in a number of cases loved, on my own. Walter Murch’s wonderful Return to Oz is a good example, and two very fine pictures I watched recently, both of which I would, if I took either Scheuer or Maltin as gospel, have avoided, will also serve as paradigms.

Willow - Sisbert

Siskel and Ebert… or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The first — commended to me by Eliot M. Camerana, whose exceptionally sane and perceptive blog you should subscribe to if you haven’t already — was the 1970 British historical film Cromwell with Richard Harris as the redoubtable Oliver and Alec Guinness as Charles I, a picture I have known of for decades (Miss Anderson’s bookcase again; she had the tie-in novelization) but had never seen.

Here is Maltin:

“(**) Turgid historical epic has everything money can buy, but no human feeling  underneath.  Harris is coldly unsympathetic… one feels more sympathy for King Charles I… which is not the idea.”

Maltin (or whoever on his editorial team wrote this capsule) is correct that the battle sequences, photography (by the great Geoffrey Unsworth) and period costumes (by Nino Novarese) are splendid, and that Frank Cordell’s score is “amateurish.” It is, frankly, stupid music, in the worst Max Steiner tradition, with dialogue sequences underlined by crashing chords and keening strings as if great dramatic events are being portrayed when they are merely interesting rather than earth-shattering. The only time Cordell’s music bestirs itself into appropriate life is when, in the first of the big battle sequences, it apes Alex North’s score for Spartacus.

But as to that “coldly unsympathetic”… Did Maltin not understand that Oliver Cromwell was a Puritan? How bloody warm did he expect the man to be? And just because Charles is soft-spoken, or we see him behave with kindness toward his eldest son and Papist wife, or delightedly playing blind man’s bluff with his daughter and younger son does not mean he is, ipso facto, a sympathetic character. Sociopaths, madmen and blood-soaked tyrants are as capable of affection to those they know and love as saints. Need we, perforce, judge them as more worthy of our empathy than the colder man whose passions, however coolly expressed, embrace such concepts as democracy, the need for representative government, and an opposition to tyranny?§ If John Adams was indeed “obnoxious and disliked” — his own words — would we not still rather have him than George III? And leaving aside my own abhorrence at rating movies as if they were restaurants, that two-star designation should be taken with, at the very least, skepticism. Maltin is, after all, the man who gave The Avengers three-and-a-half and called Oliver Stone’s Alexander “boring.”

Cromwell - Harris, Jayston

Richard Harris as Cromwell, with Michael Jayston as Henry Ireton.

Scheuer at least liked the picture, but gave it only a rating of **1/2. For this reader and movie aficionado, two-and-a-half stars are what you give pointless nothings like Shreck or handsome, overblown epics like Becket — mediocrities, in other wordsnot to something as sharply written and beautifully crafted as Cromwell. And here, again, we are at the nub of my argument: Had I left it to Maltin and Scheur, rather than relying on the recommendation of a friend whose taste and perception I trust, I wouldn’t have bothered with Cromwell, and would therefore have deprived myself of an exceptional movie experience.

That is the basic value thoughtful, nuanced criticism has over consumerist capsule reviews. Not that a thoughtful critic can’t also steer you wrong, but if you read any writer regularly over time, you begin to suss out his or her thinking. You know, if you read Kael for any length of time, roughly what she is likely to dismiss and what she will embrace. (I speak of her in the present tense because while the individual issues of the magazines for which her reviews were written have long since moldered in landfills her writing is still alive, and, collected in books, can be read at one’s leisure.) The same was true of Agee, and John Simon. And the only way to really develop a relationship with a critic is to read long-form reviews… although, with Kael, you can get a measure of her tastes even in the capsules that used to be published in the listings pages of The New Yorker and which were reprinted as 1001 Nights at the Movies. But I argue that her briefer critiques and Agee’s, when, as he sometimes did, he wrote up several movies in one review are no less valuable as writing than her (and his) fuller pieces, whereas what you find in Maltin’s books is, in essence, a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Sometimes written with wit, but most often merely functional.

Cromwell - Robin Stewart and Guinness

Robin Stewart as Prince Charles and Alec Guinness as The King.

Cromwell succeeds, for me at any rate, on every level: As drama, as historical re-creation, as character study, and as martial epic. Its screenplay, credited to the director Ken Hughes (the playwright and scenarist Ronald Harwood received consultant credit, suggesting he polished if not re-wrote Hughes’ script) is both expansive and intimate, stinting neither on the battles of the English Civil War nor the internecine intrigues that inform governance. It is true that some momentous events, such as the siege of Bristol by the Parliamentary forces, occur off-stage, but here budgetary concerns may have overcome dramaturgy (the movie cost £9 million, or 8 million in U.S. dollars) and in any case there is such a thing even in epics as battle-fatigue. Anyone who has read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and has gotten to the point in the final volume where he can no longer distinguish one clash of arms from another knows the feeling. (It was the same in the Peter Jackson adaptation of The Return of the King, only more so; what was dull on the page became both annoying and enervating on the screen.)

Cromwell explicates a complex series of historical events with remarkable concision. Even if you know nothing about the Roundheads, or Charles’ reign, or the Civil War he precipitated by such anti-democratic actions as suspending Parliament for twelve years, you are given the relevant information in complete, and graspable, terms, and without obviousness or pedantry or — and this is the great scourge of historical movies — the cheating of hindsight. The dialogue is intelligent, limpid and witty, and if Harris tends, as he always did, to extremes either of the under-emoted or the rhetorically explosive and Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert overdoes the sneering popinjay, he at least redeems himself in his final scene, finally shocked into recognition that the king’s opposition is a force to be reckoned with and that Charles is exactly the man his enemies believe him to be. (It’s a realization that also occurs, too late, to Nigel Stock’s Sir Edward Hyde.) The other performers, particularly Guinness, are splendid and if I wish there was more of Robert Morely as Manchester, Charles Grey as Essex and Frank Finlay as one of Harris’ estate peasants, brutalized by the King’s enforcers, surely wanting more is preferable to its opposite.

John Stoll’s sumptuous production design adds both luster and verisimilitude and Hughes’ direction seems to me exactly right. While it perhaps lacks a certain panache, it also never falters, or falls into grandiosity — historical pomp and ostentation because the budget permits it and a crass producer demands it. I was particularly taken with the almost Shakespearean depiction of opposing prayers to the same God, on either side of a looming battle, for victory. “Every man who wages war believes God is on his side,” Cromwell tells Ireton. “I’ll warrant God should often wonder who is on his.” There is also, in the manner with which Harris turns away from the public spectacle of Charles’ execution, and leans his head against the wall in pained regret, a genuine and moving eloquence. Whatever his quarrels with the king, this is not the outcome Cromwell desired.

Cromwell - Battle

Cromwell’s soldiers during battle: The human, plebeian face of war.

Its general excellence as a motion picture aside, I have a further reason for appreciating Cromwell. And although I am generally chary of Symbolism (and its furtive little brother Allegory) and while I’m aware that the picture occasionally plays a little loose with the facts, it is almost impossible for a modern viewer of this movie to see it and not reflect on the all too clear parallels between 16th century Britain and 21st century America. Is Robert Morley’s Manchester saying, “if we in Parliament cannot gain from ruling the country there’s really very little point in our being here at all” really that far removed from Nancy Pelosi’s repeated crowing about being “the biggest” fund-raiser in the House? No wonder Cromwell calls Parliament a brothel. With economic and social inequity at its greatest in this country since what it pleased Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to call “the Gilded Age”; with a line of increasingly imperial presidencies stretching from Johnson to Trump making it abundantly clear that banks and investors own our leaders, and our needs are not to be met if it is to cost them a penny; with armaments our only real product and endless war our most important export; with our international (and, increasingly, national) matters of interest wholly subject to the mad whims of a National Security State that murders president and citizen alike, here and elsewhere, as it pleases; with our legislation in the hands of the most nakedly corrupt Congress and Senate in American history — and don’t think for a moment that one of our permanent ruling parties is the moral superior of the other when it comes to graft made wholly legal by their enactment of the laws that protect them; with the allegedly liberal party now routinely rigging primary elections and both of them busily disenfranchising as many voters as they can; as a people we are facing a decision, and it is apt to be both more vital, and faster in coming, than we suppose. To wit: Do we live up to our platitudes about democracy, or do we shrug shamefacedly and admit that we have, as Twain also once suggested, sold our liberties for a slogan? Would we sit back and let an American king dissolve the other two branches of our government for a dozen years, as Charles did, and only return them to some sort of limited power when he needs to raise funds for yet another pointless war? Do we now, as we did in 2001 and 2002, surrender all freedoms for the anemic (when not downright sinister) promise of security? Or is the American Experiment well and truly over? I suspect that in the events currently unreeling here (and over a virus that, so far, has killed a minuscule fraction of the U.S. population compared to the tens of thousands taken every winter by other forms of influenza) and in our common response to them, may well lie the answer. I’m not exactly what you would call hopeful about it. But if ever we needed an Oliver Cromwell to restore some semblance of the Republic, it is now. The question is, would he, or she, be a Cincinnatus… or a Stalin?

I’ll close this section by noting that another 1970 picture, Tora! Tora! Tora!, cost almost three times what Cromwell did, returned only a fifth of that in revenues, and Richard Fleischer, its producer and director, went on to enjoy a lengthy and increasingly profitable career in Hollywood. Ken Hughes, meanwhile, who said of Cromwell — the highest-grossing British movie of its year — that it was “the best thing I’ve ever done,” was reduced in the coming years to personal poverty, and to directing such deathless milestones as the Mae West bomb Sextette and, finally, a 1980s slasher flick called Night School.

Christ, but The Show Biz is a miserable bitch.


The Train Robbers - Train

Leading with his gut: John Wayne with Ben Johnson, Christopher George, Rod Taylor and Ann-Margaret in The Train Robbers. Note the upside-down train cars in the sand.

The second item whose pleasures both Maltin and Scheuer warned me away from — or would have, had I read their capsules, and heeded them — was the writer-director Burt Kennedy’s delightful 1973 comedy-Western The Train Robbers. While certainly far less consequential than Cromwell and, I would argue, badly titled (John Wayne’s gang of adventurers are not bandits, and his character is motivated by the effects of a robbery)  watching this charmer was just about the best use of 90 minutes I’ve indulged in all year.

If you are predisposed, as I am, to liking Kennedy’s Westerns (among other things he wrote and directed an effective adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, and was the director of the delicious James Garner spoofs Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter and likely an uncredited writer on both) you’ll appreciate the craftsmanship, and the easy wit, on display here. Wayne, with one lung gone, is notably raspier but no less relaxed or authoritative (if that isn’t an oxymoron) than he ever was, but your appreciation of Ann-Margaret’s performance as the woman behind the mission will depend, I suppose, on how you feel about pneumatics. The supporting cast is a treat, however, and includes Ben Johnson, Christoper George, Rod Taylor, Bobby Vinton and Jerry Gatlin in Wayne’s gang and Ricardo Montalban as the mysterious, cigar-smoking gunman following them. Curiously, none of the other characters, all but one of them part of a band of outlaws against which Wayne’s troupe arrays itself, is identified, or even seen except from a distance or during pitched gun battles. I don’t know that their facelessness makes them notably more threatening — William Goldman and George Roy Hill pulled that business off much more effectively with their Super Posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — but it’s an interesting conceit, and leaves us free to enjoy, without distraction, Wayne and his compatriots; to mark the often pungent dialogue (Taylor to Johnson: “Don’t ever get old; you’ll live to regret it”); to chuckle at the twist ending; and to gawp at one of the most striking sets you’ll ever see in a movie: A train, upside down in the desert sands. Like the ship in the Gobi in Spielberg’s revamped Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s one of those unexpected images that stick with you.

The picture was shot by the gifted William H. Clothier, who was also the cinematographer for John Ford’s Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the exceptional and underseen Firecreek, Rio Lobo for Howard Hawks and William Wellman’s extraordinary black-and-white-in-color chamber Western Track of the Cat. Here his images shimmer, and Kennedy’s direction throughout is sure, sharp and beautifully composed. Albert Whitlock provided some nice matte paintings and Dominic Frontiere’s score is just about perfect, with a martial undertone that is both grand adventure accompaniment and a subtle reminder to us of Wayne, Johnson and Taylor’s shared past as prickly Union compatriots. And if there are in the picture a couple of odd echos — of the opening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in the credit sequence where Johnson waits for an incoming train, and of Richard Brooks’ own entertaining Western caper The Professionals — they’re more than made up for by Kennedy’s otherwise keen originality.

The Train Robbers - Johnson and Taylor

Taylor to Johnson: “Don’t ever get old; you’ll live to regret it.”

What has Maltin to say of The Train Bobbers in his **1/2-starred capsule? “Low-key film emphasizes character instead of action.” Again, one wonders what movie he saw. Yes, Kennedy’s script is character-driven; but it has at least three major action set-pieces, and several smaller incidents along the way that should be enough to satisfy Western fans. Indeed, The Train Robbers has at least as much action as Rio Lobo, to which Maltin assigned three stars. Could it be, perhaps, that this is because Rio Lobo was a Howard Hawks picture, and Hawks is a critics’ darling? I liked that specific picture well myself, and like Hawks pictures generally, so this isn’t a matter of relative merit but of critical consistency.

Maltin’s critique, however, is a rave compared to Scheuer’s: “(*1/2) Dull Western…”¶

As always, these things are a matter of taste, and individual reaction. But how a crisp little exercise like this one, with a witty script, charming performances, an unusual plot and some equally unique action sequences can be called “dull” is at best a mystery, and brings us back to the beginning: When criticism devolves into nothing other than consumer guidance, it ceases to function, as it needs to, as a corrective to mere P.R. flackery.

“In this age of consumerism film criticism all over the world — in America first but also in Europe — has become something that caters for the movie industry instead of being a counterbalance.” — Wim Wenders

In other words: It elevates trash, and shits on originality.

The Train Robbers - Montalban

Ricardo Mantalban as the mysterious gunman. Note the band of brigands to the left. That image, I would say, is hardly what you would call dull filmmaking.


*Only one of the majors  — Universal — was purchased by an entity involved in entertainment, and that was largely innocuous pop music; MCA already knew how to market offal.

†Miss Anderson also let me take a book of my choice at the end of the school year, I suspect because I was her most ardent and frequent borrower, as well as the student she saw as the most likely future writer.

‡Lucas also named his chief villain in Willow “General Kael.” I’ll bet that sent Pauline to her fainting-couch.

§Richard Harris’ Cromwell is as heatedly passionate as I think anyone could ask, so I’m not even sure what Maltin means by that “coldly”; indeed, Harris is, if anything, sometimes overly emphatic.

¶I said before that Scheuer’s were the better-written reviews, but I’m quoting in this essay from the last edition (1993) of his book, and by that time he’d cut his previously more fulsome capsules down to the bare minimum. A lot of style was leeched from these as a result, and most of the reason for reading them in the first place.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

What gold makes of us: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948)

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By Scott Ross

“It isn’t the gold that changes man, it is the power which gold gives to man that changes the soul of man. This power, though, is only imaginary. If not recognized by other men, it does not exist.” — B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

“That’s the gold. That’s what it makes of us. Never knew a prospector yet that died rich.” — Howard (Walter Huston) in the film

If those two statements seem contradictory, John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is still one of those almost miraculous studio movies that somehow got made with minimal interference and compromise and likely represents a realization that was as close to its creator’s intention as it was possible, in 1948, to come. Nearly everything Traven gets at in the book is there, only with fewer lengthy parables and less Marxist hectoring. And if Huston slightly reverses the author’s message at the end, it’s not a fatal reinterpretation, or even a misinterpretation. It’s simply a means of making the best of things, and leaving the audience a little something to dream on: Traven’s survivors share a bitter joke, and defeat. Huston’s shoulder the black irony as well, but both are left with something to look forward to.

Traven’s economic Marxism is not incorrect, mind you, merely pushed at a bit too hard: The narrative itself is its own Marxist parable and doesn’t require such heavy editorializing. It’s the same problem one encounters so often with Brecht; when creative writers, even proven artists, become rigidly dogmatic their tendency to the pedantic militates against their artistry, and hammering home a point to make sure the slowest mind in the back stalls can grasp it sure plays hell with art. Traven isn’t as boringly doctrinaire as Brecht, but his digressive parables are overlong and all come to the same point: Where riches are concerned, men and women destroy each other, and themselves, pursuing them. Since the narrative arc of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre makes that abundantly clear, the parables become slogs to get through, even when they’re written with grace and peppered with sharp observation; we want to get back to the story, and the author isn’t going to oblige us without a lecture first.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bogart and Holt resized

Humphrey Bogart as Dobbs and Tim Holt as Curtin.

The one digression that feeds directly into the action of the book, the appalling massacre by a cadre of bandits of passengers on a train they’re robbing, is foreshortened in the movie, the calculated murderousness elided. (Although one suspects that, if the brigands gained control of the train, a lot more than cash would be taken.) Huston makes his three protagonists direct participants in the defense of the train whereas in Traven’s book the incident is reported on to suggest that the bandits, although their ranks are gradually thinned out by the Mexican Federales, and while they are scattered about in smaller groups, are still a danger. The bandidos who bedevil Traven’s characters are random, and varied, while Huston has his actors encounter the central villain, referred to as “Gold Hat,” three times. That may make for easier audience identification, but it stretches credulity past the breaking point. That’s one of the few missteps Huston makes. Another is his using some of Warners’ rather poorly disguised outdoor sets and not really attempting to disguise them with better lighting. Reality, captured in more natural light, renders contrivance superfluous, if not in a way obscene; compared in the same picture to Huston’s vibrant location shots in Mexico, the manufactured outdoor sets look even phonier than is usual with these things.

If you weren’t aware that this was his first studio picture since 1942, you’d never know there was such a gap between Huston’s movies. Not that he had been idle; as a Motion Picture Unit officer, he made a number of documentaries for the armed forces and, even if most are tainted by Huston’s re-creating incidents depicted in them, he doubtless picked up invaluable experience on the ground that affected his post-war work, as well as emotional experience that expanded and deepened his point of view. Unlike John Ford, who as as result of his armed service activities became besotted with all things military, Huston left the European Theatre with a lifelong loathing for war. And it’s telling that his most anguished documentary, the 1946 Let There Be Light, about the treatment of emotionally damaged vets, was, following a single screening at the Museum of Modern Art, suppressed by the U.S. government for over 35 years. After all, we mustn’t let the mass public ever see the true human cost of allowing their sons to become cannon-fodder.

As the picture’s screenwriter, Huston honors the source, as he did with The Maltese Falcon, and  although he takes more liberties with Traven than he did with Hammett, you don’t mind most of them. He streamlines a slightly unwieldy narrative, and focuses it, removing the digressions. On the negative side, although Huston adds little, those additions he does make are not necessarily felicitous: For example, the way Curtin (Tim Holt) reminisces about an Edenic summer spent working with migrants, a monologue of joyous hard labor that smacks of capitalist propaganda; or the convenient sentimental letter Bruce Bennett’s Cody (Lacaud in the novel, where he isn’t killed) has in his pocket, which is read aloud after his death and which sets the agriculturally-inclined Curtin to thinking about the man’s young widow.* And when Howard (Walter Huston) is kept at the Indian village, instead of chafing at his enforced vacation as he does in the book, his reverie is a virtual paradise of the senses: Fruit and melon fed to him by beautiful girls who coo over him as he lies in a hammock receiving gifts of squealing piglets. It’s poster-art tourism as a state of mind, and the mind isn’t really Howard’s. (Perhaps it was Huston’s?) Interestingly, while Gold Hat’s famous lines about badges are taken directly from Traven, Humphrey Bogart’s most well-remembered exclamation (“Fred C. Dobbs don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean”) is pure John Huston, as is the sequence with the gila monster. And if the writer-director softened Traven’s Socialism, and completely eliminated his intelligent and entirely justified anti-clericism, he left in the original author’s critique of unfettered capitalism, and of the way riches — or even the mere promise of them — alter human beings for the worse. Getting away with that, in the happily capitalist late 1940s, and under a Production Code that glorified bankers, was not nothing.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bedoya

No stinking badges: Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat.

As a filmmaker Huston serves his screenwriter, and Traven. He fully captures the grungy milieu of post-oil boom Mexico, when American corporate interests had just about finished raping the land and carrying away the Mexican people’s natural treasure, leaving a gigantic labor void in their careless wake where stranded workers, many of them foreign, were ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous fly-by-night speculators like Barton MacLane’s Pat McCormick. (No wonder Traven laid his Marxist lessons on with a trowel.) Huston also evens things out a bit, as in the sequence in which Dobbs and Curtin brace their fellow American McCormick, who owes them their wages for weeks of back-breaking work and pretty obviously has no intention of paying, in a bar. In Traven, the pair subdue him quickly. In Huston, it’s a well-matched battle, McCormick giving as good as he gets until he’s finally overmastered by superior numbers. (Although the staging is sometimes awkward and some of the punches are too obviously pulled, lessening the impact of the action.) But it was censorship that flattened out what should have been the movie’s most dramatic moment, when Dobbs is decapitated by Gold Hat. If you watch closely and know to look for it, you can after the edit that follows see ripples in the water where his head, in the shot Huston was forced to cut, rolled into the river. The picture was already tough and unsettling; did the Hays Office imagine this moment was going to drive its viewers irrevocably ’round the bend?


One of the pleasures of the book, and especially of the movie made from it, is the conception of Howard, the old hand who leads Dobbs’ expedition in search of gold. He could have been a twinkling, saintly bore, too true to be good; perhaps aware of this, Traven (and even more so Huston) make Howard wise but not omniscient and, as he explains to Dobbs and Curtin, more trustworthy but not necessarily more honest than his companions. It’s a also role that could have been emptily and annoyingly garrulous if the hands of a lesser actor than John Huston’s father.

Treasure - Holt, Bogart, Huston

“Go ahead, go ahead, throw it. If you did, you’d never leave this wilderness alive.” Walter Huston’s Howard is unimpressed by Dobbs’ anger.

Walter Huston, while never a film-star, was often the best thing about any movie he appeared in and, in the 1936 William Wyler-directed adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth, gave one of the so-called Golden Era’s indisputably great performances — and in one of the truly splendid, and uniquely adult, American movies, not merely of its time but of any time. Huston’s voice was one which, as recognizable in its subtler way as that of Cagney or Robinson, could wind itself as easily around virtue as rascality. His range was so extensive he could play Satan (in The Devil and Daniel Webster) or Abraham Lincoln, a corrupt president or an honest banker (surely an oxymoron even for Frank Capra!), George M. Cohan’s dad or Ambassador Joseph Davis, and be utterly convincing as each. He even, while appearing as Peter Stuyvesant in the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson musical Knickerbocker Holiday, had the late 1930s equivalent of a Top 40 hit in “September Song.” His rendition, as precariously pitched as a Gertrude Lawrence aria, remains definitive.†

At John’s suggestion, Walter removed his dentures for the role. On his own impulse, he spoke Howard’s lines very fast; he reasoned that, when a man is honest, he doesn’t have to think a great deal about what he’s saying. Although his son undermines him at a crucial juncture, lingering too long on Howard’s doubtful countenance when Dobbs and Curtin pledge their good faith to each other — the moment could have been twice as effective at a third the length — it’s nearly impossible to think of Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre without grinning at the sheer love of acting he displays. The moment when, taking a leaf from Traven’s description he begins dancing a jig (one Huston said was taught to him by Cohan) and letting loose with gales of wheezy cackling as he taunts his compatriots for their ignorance is one of the highest moments in American movies. (That it also lays the groundwork for Howard’s burst of what Traven called “Homeric laughter” at the end is surely not coincidental.) But it isn’t all mad dances and explosive laughter; Huston is equally good in calmer moments, when his quiet dignity commands attention. Think, for example, of that extraordinary sequence, so beautifully lit and shot by the cinematographer Ted McCord, in which the old prospector ministers to the little Indian boy whose puzzling coma is what brings Howard into the camp. Howard is no doctor; he knows that most of what he’s doing is dumb-show, and that the child will either recover or not without his assistance. Yet even his showing off has a gentle serenity that commends to him our rapt approval. Walter Huston won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for this performance, but even if he hadn’t, it would be still be among the imperishable treasures of American film.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - Bogart and Blake

“You can take dat to da bank, señor“: Little Bobby Blake, about to have a glass of water thrown into his face by Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart, meanwhile, is Dobbs to the life. He fixes the character’s desperation, and his embarrassed awareness of his own extreme poverty, from the first moments, and his performance strongly suggests the actor knew, whatever the ultimate box-office returns of the movie, that this was going to be a career-high role. In the previous seven years, due in large part to the success of Huston’s debut as a filmmaker, The Maltese Falcon, Bogey had become a major star, at least the equal at Warners of Bette Davis if not indeed her superior at the box office. His public romance with (and later marriage to) Lauren Bacall deepened the new aura of sexiness that had surrounded him after his emergence as a romantic leading man in Casablanca, and while moviegoers liked him best as a tough hero Bogart couldn’t be limited that way; although he’d struggled a long time to get the sort of better roles (and better pictures) that led to this new popularity, he was too good an actor to be put into a box and, whatever the feudal qualities of the Hollywood system’s creative servitude, too valuable to his studio to be forced into roles he didn’t want in scripts he didn’t like.

Dobbs is the antithesis of Rick Blaine of Casablanca, or Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe or even Harry Morgan of To Have and Have Not. He is closer, physically, to Duke Mantee, the scruffy gangster Bogart portrayed in the stage play (and, later, film) The Petrified Forest. Not that he’s a gangster, or anything close. But his unshaven state is not dissimilar, nor is his essential roughness of personality. Dobbs isn’t unlettered, exactly; in both the novel and the movie of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre you get the sense he’s at very least a high school graduate. It’s more a matter of his bitterness, and his degradation. Like many Americans at that time, he’s been stranded in Mexico with no means of getting back home for so long he’s more than begun to wonder if he’ll die in Tampico, or end up a complete derelict. That’s he’s relatively young — not as young as Curtin, but young enough — is no comfort; what do youth or health mean when you can’t find work? Dobbs’ situation is Traven’s ultimate rebuke of the notion of capitalism itself, in which your very existence depends on some rich bastard hiring you, usually for as little as he can get away with, and his paying you that only when you can catch him. Bogart gets all of this across, almost without speaking. And Huston, as the writer and director, deepens our appreciation of Dobbs, as when Bogart, seeing a lit, discarded cigarette in the street, hesitates and is beaten to it by a small Mexican boy.§

As in the novel, Dobbs’ change of persona in the movie is gradual. He isn’t presented, either by Traven or by Huston, as even potentially villainous, merely as a man on his uppers for so long his ideals (which may only be skin-deep anyway) don’t require much of a nudge to slip away entirely. Although he doesn’t admit to such thoughts, as Howard does,  the very decent Curtin has his moment of temptation, when the mine caves in on Dobbs and he pauses before going to his rescue; you can see Tim Holt, as Curtin, weighing the odds and calculating how much richer he will be if Dobbs perishes. The difference between him and Dobbs, and between Dobbs and Howard, is that their basic decency intervenes. Dobbs is missing something fundamental in his psyche that might ward off his baser impulses, and Bogart is almost uncanny in the way he makes that lack work for him as an actor. It’s in the lines, of course, and the story’s rising action, but the final and most important push is his. The desperation Bogart lets us glimpse early in the picture, together with the character’s growing paranoia, prepares us for his ability to wrap his mind, increasingly unbalanced by the presence of the gold slung over the backs of their mules, around the idea of killing Curtin, and we’re not shocked by it when he shoots him. It says something fundamental about the idiocy of award races that Academy voters, faced with Bogart’s just about perfect performance, didn’t nominate him for its Best Actor Oscar® that year… although they did find room for Dan Dailey in a musical no one remembers. One would almost think the nominating members of the Academy in 1949 were 21st century Democrats.


Treasure of the Sirra Madre - finale

Homeric laughter: Holt and Huston in the ironic finale.

It speaks well of Tim Holt’s innate resourcefulness as an actor that as Curtin he is able to not merely hold his own between Bogart and Walter Huston but manage as well to be nearly as fine in a far less showy part. The son of a silent movie personality, and a young man determined to be a Western movie star, Holt worked largely in B-movies (what Orson Welles referred to as “all sorts of six-day Westerns”) yet managed to be in several big pictures in roles of varying importance: Stella Dallas (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Swiss Family Robinson (1940), Back Street (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946, as Virgil Earp) and the two pictures for which he is best remembered, this one and Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, in which Holt is superb as Georgie Minifer, monstrously spoiled and eminently deserving of his “comeuppance.” In Curtin Holt assays Georgie’s antithesis, a man of a basic decency, and makes him memorable. Watch him especially in the scene where Howard laughs at the loss of their gold: Holt looks puzzled at first, then shocked, then frightened at Howard’s sudden hilarity, before slowly giving in to the cosmic joke of it. That’s one nice piece of acting.

While most of the movie’s running time concerns itself with Bogart, Huston and Holt, Bennett creates a strong impression in his brief role as Cody, and MacLane is typically blustery (Bogart and Huston fans will remember him as the surly police detective in The Maltese Falcon bent on nailing Sam Spade for… whatever he can) as the duplicitous contractor Dobbs and Curtin have to nearly beat into a coma just to receive their pay. Little Robert Blake (billed as “Bobby”) does a beautiful job as a hustling street urchin, Alfonso Bedoya is genuinely frightening as “Gold Hat,” John Huston makes a strong showing as a white-suited American whom Dobbs pandhandles once too often, and Jack Holt, Tim’s actor father, shows up in the last-rung flophouse where Dobbs and Curtin first encounter Howard.¶

Treasure - Steiner (Rhino CD)

Steiner’s score on a Rhino/Turner CD release. Note the cleaned-up star portraits from the original poster, and the superfluous señorita promising the potential ticket-buyer a little sex with his treasure-hunting. Alas, the first third of the master tapes are missing, but the disc beautifully represents Steiner’s best score after King Kong and Gone with the Wind… and one of his least annoying. 

In addition to the then-unusual amount of location shooting, which gives the picture much of its solid verisimilitude, Huston was abetted enormously by McCord’s rich black-and-white cinematography. McCord had a splendid eye for contrast, and his images are rich and resonant. The people involved in this project seemed to know it was special; even the often bombastic Max Steiner delivered a score that is more subtle than was his wont. Aside from his appropriately fable-like opening theme and a recurrent motif for the trio of gold-miners that has the feel of plodding uphill with burrows but without the sort of dogged literal-mindedness that spoiled Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, Steiner’s finest accomplishment here is the way he scored the sequence in which the men watch, and wait, for the arrival of the bandits at their camp. He scores the onset with a long, sustained chord by harp and other strings and low rolling drums which, repeated, accentuates the tension nearly to the breaking point. It’s so effective it was later duplicated by John Williams for the sequence in Jaws where Quint prepares to hook the shark, and where it was equally successful.

Huston’s direction throughout is almost shockingly right. The camerawork is clean and effective, the pacing, despite an unusually long running-time for the period, is brisk yet never hurried, and attention is paid in exactly the correct proportions to place, and to people. This, I think, is part of the advantage of being a writer-director. And like Howard Hawks, or George Cukor, both filmmakers intimately involved in the crafting of their movies’ screenplays (especially Hawks, who like Hitchcock was usually an un-credited writer on his scripts) Huston seemed to know instinctively how to group his actors, and where to place his camera, to achieve the maximum dramatic impact, without calling attention to himself. If this translates as a lack of style among pure image junkies — if they cannot appreciate how a director can frame his material without distracting the audience with fancy camera moves — they deserve nothing better than a steady diet of Scorsese and Coen.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was fairly costly ($2,474,000) and it took in less than twice its budget, earning $4,095,000 on its initial release. But it was highly praised, by people who seemed to grasp that darker, less compromised movies than had been the norm for decades were now in the wind, and that John Huston was not merely a figure to watch, but very likely one of the people who would be pushing the medium hard in the future. Whoever B. Traven was, one likes to imagine he did not feel betrayed by the motion picture made, so lovingly and so well, from his most famous book.

Walter and John Huston - Oscars

Walter and John on Oscar® night 1949. The first, and so far only, father/son winners in the same year, for the same picture.


*Curiously, although Curtin explicitly states that his golden summer was spent in California (the San Joaquin Valley), Max Steiner, the movie’s composer, called his music for this sequence “Texas Memories.” And while I am not fond of the letter Huston added, which strains to jerk tears for a character about whom we know little and care even less, the line about the crops (“the upper orchard looks aflame and the lower like after a snowstorm”) is lovely.

†I still can’t figure out what the progressive Weill was doing in collaboration with a reactionary like Anderson, especially on a show whose villain was a stand-in for FDR. But they worked together four times, so the playwright (and occasional lyricist) must have offered something to Weill in the way of artistic compensation.

§The boy seems to be Bobbie Blake — he wears the same sort of striped shirt and dirty overalls as Blake in his later scenes in the movie — but he’s on screen for so brief a moment it’s difficult to tell for certain.

¶Welles used, anachronistically, a poster for a Jack Holt silent during one of the street sequence in Ambersons, “just to make Tim happy.”

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

The future, Mr. Gittes: In which your correspondent officially gives up

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By Scott Ross

If you care about literacy, reading almost anything these days is taking your sanity in your hands on a regular basis. And it isn’t just the utter codswallop that passes for political “thought.” If you’re a regular reader of books,  you can’t believe the idiot errors even good, established writers commit. First you re-read the line, or the claim, or the comment, thinking, “I can’t have read that right.” Then you realize: “My God! I did read that right!” One is sometimes left dazed, wondering how the hell people can get basic, well-known facts so horribly wrong.

Books about the movies have always been problematic in this area. I started reading them when I was 12 or so and becoming a seriously movie-mad adolescent, and even at that age I was sometimes staggered by the poor scholarship (and the equally atrocious writing) in much of what I read. What’s worse is, those errors quickly get replicated by know-nothings, and repeated in their own books, which then influence equally lazy minds in the laity. Some time ago Leonard Maltin discovered to his horror that Hollywood studios were depending on his annual TV Movies reference guides for the running-times of their own films, making him feel that if he didn’t get it absolutely right, he’d somehow be responsible for the consequences of the suits’ laziness. As so many of us have had occasion to note in reference to appalling and easily-corrected misstatements in print, in the age of the Internet it takes, quite literally, 30 seconds to perform a search, and usually less than two minutes to get an answer to matters of trivia you are unsure of. (Always assuming you are not so sunk in reactive, neo-Luddite conservatism as to actually pull down a physical book to find the answer.) Of course, in a by-gone era, one depended not only upon good and diligent writers to ferret out these facts but on equally good editors to catch the mistakes and correct them. Magazines like The New Yorker used to have fact-checking departments renowned for being impossible to fool. Now you routinely read statements in the pages of that once-venerable publication that make you scream.

My own favorite of the past decade, in a profile of Billy Joel, was the claim by the writer that one of Joel’s Long Island neighbors was John Barry, “the man who wrote the James Bond theme” when Monty Norman’s authorship of the Bond theme precipitated two of the most famously litigated cases of press libel in movie music history. Barry once asked the professional ignoramus Terry Gross, in answer to her question about Norman — years after those lawsuits, both of which Norman won and of which Gross, all too typically, had her usual half-assed knowledge — why, if he didn’t write it, the producers hired him to score all those other Bond movies? Uhhh… because on Dr. No you saved Norman’s good-but-not-great theme with your terrific arrangement of it? To throw that spurious argument back at Barry, if Norman didn’t compose it (which he demonstrably did)* why is he listed as the composer on soundtrack record labels and in Bond movie credits? Why has he won two libel actions against publications in Britain which he claimed defamed him by suggesting he was not the theme’s composer? Far be it, however, for a New Yorker features writer to spend ten minutes doing research before making an ignorant claim. One which, mark me, children, will be repeated.

Charles Ward resized

Charles Ward, presumably in Dancin’

Which brings me to the point. The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood (Flatiron Books, 2020), Sam Wasson’s latest flawed foray into movie history, shares with its immediate predecessor, Fosse (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) an editorial propensity by its author to elide, omit and, occasionally, obfuscate that are dispiriting. I’ve had my problems with Wasson in the past over minor issues that nevertheless concern the conscientious reader. I’m not referring to questions of style, or even approach, both of which are matters of personal taste and neither of which affect the essential truth of what is written. What does matter is being honest, and not making the sorts of errors that cause your better-informed readers to blanch. In Fosse, for example, Wasson asserted, without attribution (and in a book whose source-notes were voluminous) that Ann Reinking and the dancer Charles Ward were having an affair during the 1978 Fosse show Dancin’. It is, and was, well known that Ward was gay; indeed, he was one of the early theatre figures to contract AIDS. It is true that Reinking was sharing an apartment with Ward at the time, but it’s quite a leap to assume they were romantically involved, even if, in Fosse’s paranoia, he believed they were. This is an, as far as I am aware, baseless claim, one I hope was not replicated in the recent (and, to me, pointless)† miniseries Fosse and Verdon. Alas, it probably was.

Similarly there are things in The Big Goodbye which, even when staring him in the face, Wasson misses. After describing the corrupt origins of Los Angeles in some detail, the author compliments Robert Towne on the authentic “noir” sound of the character he named “Hollis Mulwray” and seems not to understand that it was simply a variation on that of William Mullholland, on whom the slightly more benign Mulwray was based. I am also a little dismayed by the book’s very title. Wasson may have thought he was getting at the sound or the style of Raymond Chandler and Howard Hawks, but is he unaware that “The Big Goodbye” is the name of a Peabody Award-winning, 1940s film noir time-travel episode by Tracy Tormé of Star Trek: The Next Generation, similarly titled to evoke The Big Sleep? Apparently not. I’m the furthest thing from a Star Trek fan, but even I knew about this. Or was it, for Wasson, just so 20th century? Additionally, while briefly describing Barrie Chase, Towne’s first great love, Wasson refers to her as being in the chorus of some movie musicals. He seems to have no idea how famous Chase later became, or why.  Wasson is too young, of course, to have seen Chase with Fred Astaire in his three NBC television specials (1959, 1960 and 1968) but so am I. My relative youth, however, does not preclude my being aware that Chase was Astaire’s last great dancing partner, or from having seen extended clips from those shows, in which Barrie Chase proved that she was every bit as good partnering Fred as Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth or Cyd Charisse, and in some ways (her sly wit, her superb technique and her striking elegance) even better.‡
Barrie Chase with Fred

What, moreover, are we to make of that subtitle? That “Hollywood” ended in the 1980s? What Wasson means (and readers of this blog will know we entirely agree) is that the personal filmmaking that marked the 1970s as the last great era in American movie history ended after the success of Jaws made projects like Chinatown passé, but the industry hardly shuttered in 1975. (And no, I don’t think I’m being pedantic; Hollywood has never been healthier, financially, than it is today. It has also never been less healthy, artistically and creatively.) Further, Wasson sniffs at Jaws as if it is ordure only slightly redeemed by being entertaining ordure, when he should instead reserve his opprobrium for the way the picture’s over-saturation marketing replaced the traditional ability of movies to build their audiences over time. While my love for Jaws is not definitive — de gustibus, baby — I hardly think the picture is in the same category as Top Gun. Wasson scorns that one too, and rightfully, but doesn’t seem to comprehend why it got made: It was the ’80s, and Reagan was president. It was perfect, anodyne, America-made-great-again (and that was his slogan long before it was Trump’s) pabulum for people who can’t handle, and don’t want, anything stronger at the movies than a two-hour commercial advertisement for United States military hegemony.


One of the most dispiriting movie books of the last quarter century is also one Wasson’s publisher is eager to compare his to and to which, alas, it bears comparison. (So did Fosse.) Peter Biskind’s sordid Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Simon & Schuster, 1998) pretended to being a paean to the innovators of the 1970s but was far more interested in tearing them down and trashing their reputations. It was and is solely a collection of ground axes and (alleged) bad behavior, a new edition of Hollywood Babylon, updated to 1980. There is nothing (I repeat: Nothing) in the book of wisdom, of delight at quality achieved, of love for the medium or appreciation of the movies Altman, Ashby, Polanski, Pakula, DePalma, Spielberg, Bogdanovich, Coppola, Scorsese, Penn and Fosse and their collaborators carved out of a dying studio structure; of how extraordinary actors like Fonda, Brando, Burstyn, Beatty, Pacino, Hackman, Dunaway, Scheider, Bridges, Duvall (Robert and Shelley) and —  supremely — Nicholson were in them; or about how beautifully the William Goldmans, Alan Sharpes, Alvin Sargents, Joan Tewkesburys, Willard Huycks, Gloria Katzes, Buck Henrys, Paddy Chayefskys, Robert Townes and Edward Taylors crafted the screenplays for the movies we now acknowledge (and which were, indeed, acknowledged then) as the reasons the decade constituted a classic period for American film, one it seems increasingly obvious we will never see the like of again.

I can see the wheels turning in your head. Edward Who? Read on.

Robert Towne - Oscars

Robert Towne accepting his solo Oscar® for Chinatown. He looks spooked, as if someone has just asked him who Edward Taylor is.

Although after slamming Peter Biskind for manufacturing an entire book out of gossip and bad press I am loath to put it this way, what’s most memorable about The Big Goodbye is what’s most shocking about it.  I refer not to the description of Roman Polanki’s indefensible statutory rape of  a 13-year old girl but to the revelation that no script the vaunted Robert Towne ever worked on, from his earliest days as a screenwriter to the death of his alleged best friend, was written without the direct, and daily, input of that friend, the heretofore unknown Edward Taylor. And that includes the screenplays he famously doctored. Wasson himself, in an interview about the book, says he’s still stunned by what he discovered about Towne and Taylor’s decades-long collaboration, for which Taylor was mildly compensated fiscally, and seemed not to care that another man took credit for every script he ever co-wrote, or conferred on. This revelation is only slightly less astounding than the details of Towne’s deliberate cocaine addiction, the wreckage it made of his life, his marriage, his friendships and his ability to function creatively — among other things, it destroyed the first attempt at filming The Two Jakes, costing Paramount millions and alienating both Towne’s close friend Nicholson and Robert Evans — and his staggeringly hypocritical behavior toward Julie Payne, his ex-wife and the mother of his child, whom he with the aid of a family retainer tarred in court with his own sins, and successfully. One almost feels the urge to tip one’s hat to Towne for, if nothing else, sheer physical endurance. To build one’s entire career on a lie is nothing new. To maintain that lie for decades requires stamina, at the very least. The late Harlan Ellison once wrote a variation on the old “Cobbler and the Elves” story  (“Working with the Little People,” collected in Strange Wine) about a played-out writer who maintains a career that should have ended long before (o irony!) due solely to the beneficent assistance of leprechauns. I wonder if even they could have kept their mouths closed as long as Edward Taylor did.

Chinatown - Polanski, Dunaway, Nicholson resized

Although I could have done without Wasson’s all too frequent forays into prose poetry (they’re either portentous or pretentious or both) one area in which he does excel is in conjuring the aura of the late ’60s, and especially in illuminating just how horrid Hollywood, and the American press, were toward Polanski after his wife and unborn son were sadistically slaughtered by members of the Manson Family. In the eyes of many, it seemed as if, merely having made Repulsion and Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski somehow willed what happened to Sharon Tate, brought it on himself. Of his childhood in Poland, reputed to have been a model for Jerzy Kosninski’s novel The Painted Bird (another item Wasson never mentions) and the loss of his mother and sister to the Nazi demon the jackals neither knew, nor cared. At a moment of numbing, horrendous grief over an insupportable act of violence that nearly leeched his sanity, Polanski became an outcast, the stench of his wife’s murder somehow clinging to him. By such logic one supposes there are those who think Stephen King asked to be plowed into by a minivan.

Although The Big Goodbye contains some practical information on how Chinatown was filmed, there isn’t enough; it isn’t a “making of” book (more’s the pity) and is often skimpy on details. Worse, it trots out the reliable, yawn-inducing old tropes (“Faye Dunaway was a bitch” is the most obvious) without anything approaching even-handedness. If Wasson had reached out to Dunaway and been rebuffed, that would be worth knowing. Alas, we don’t know, and her own book (Waiting for Gatsby) doesn’t seem to have been consulted by the author. Wasson also dismisses Nicholson’s post-Chinatown work out of hand, as if, amidst the tripe and the big payday items such as Batman, he never after 1974 made anything else of value, or gave another great performance. And even after limning the Nicholson/John Huston relationship, reporting on Jack’s admiration for the old director and his troubled romance with Huston’s daughter Anjelica, Wasson never even mentions Prizzi’s Honor, lamenting instead that after the ’70s Nicholson no longer played roles that challenged him. A dim-brained, thickly-accented New York mob assassin wasn’t a stretch? (Cut it out, Ross! You’re hashing my narrative buzz!) Well, poor Warren Beatty barely merits a mention here, not even an expression of admiration for his getting a studio run by Gulf & Western to finance and distribute Reds (in which Nicholson co-starred) his $30 million paean to American Communists.


And now, at last, we come to the reason for this review, to the gravamen of my argument against shoddy writing and to the grounds for my despairing of Wasson specifically, and the decline of American authorship generally. Tucked into The Big Goodbye‘s account of Oscar Night 1975, and Wasson’s digression about Francis Coppola’s Best Director award for The Godfather, Part II is this, which comes at the informed reader with the force of a body-blow:

“But [Robert] Evans knew that the Academy, having previously awarded Cabaret Best Picture over The Godfather, would give Coppola his due this year.”

Cabaret did not win Best Picture, The Godfather did. How the former did upset the seeming surety of Coppola’s triumph was in the Academy voters giving the Best Director statuette not to him but to Fosse.§

What removes the error cited above from the realm of the trivial — and there are few things in the world more trivial than the Academy Awards — is that the writer who made that howler… wrote a 600-page book on Bob Fosse.

Wasson didn’t even need the Internet. All he had to do was open his own goddamned book.

Bob Fosse Oscar - 1973 resized

The only thing more distressing to me than Sam Wasson’s lazy work habits is the number of articles and reviews about his book which, in an increasingly clumsy fashion, are represented by headlines evoking the movie’s famous closing line. (“It’s Chinatown, Jake” and “Forget L.A., Jake” are two of the cleverer examples.) Well, what can be expected when Wasson himself ignores perhaps the most relevant line of dialogue in Chinatown, one to which my headline alludes. It is here, in Gittes’ first confrontation with the genial monster played by Huston. (As you read this, remember that Noah Cross consistently mangles Jake’s surname as “Gitts.”)

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?
Cross: Oh my, yes!
Jake: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.

It is that very future for which, when I encounter such migraine-inducing imponderables as how a man can so little know his own previous subject, I most tremble.


*”The James Bond Theme” was Norman’s adaptation of a song (“Good Sign, Bad Sign”) he’d written the year before Dr No for a planned stage musical, with Julian Moore, of A House for Mister Biswas.

†I don’t want to see any actor portraying another performer, particularly ones as well-known, and as reproduced, in performance and interview — or as unique and idiosyncratic — as Bob Fosse or Gwen Verdon. At best one gets a pale imitation of the genuine article, at worst a caterwauling travesty which, other than serving as Oscar-bait, has no value whatsoever. (Note,too, that the producers of Fosse and Verdon felt compelled, in this age of #MeToo, to insert Verdon into a series based on a book called Fosse.)

‡Chase was also famous enough to be cast (as Dick Shawn’s mod dancing partner) in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. She was also, memorably, the young woman brutalized by Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady in Cape Fear, in some way too horrific to be mentioned, which made contemplating it even more horrendous.

§While Godfather purists, many of whom weren’t even born in 1973, still scream at this, Fosse’s direction of Cabaret deserved all the recognition it received. Acknowledging that does not diminish Coppola’s achievement.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology: February 2020

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By Scott Ross

George Steiner, 90.

A French-born Austrian literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, and educator whose most well-known work is both a literary novel and a probing work of philosophy. Steiner’s family escaped the Nazis, twice, before settling in America where they became citizens (although the majority of Steiner’s life was spent in British academia.) He is known to me for his superb 1981 short novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. In it, Steiner imagines the 90-year old Hitler being found by Nazi hunters in the Amazon, his transport to the nearest city a trial and a philosophical argument with no decision. In its way, the book is sister under the skin to the actor and writer Robert Shaw’s provocative novel and stage play The Man in the Glass Booth; both were designed to spur intellectual curiosity and serious debate. The latter, of course — in America at least — does not exist. Here, only screaming matches and name-calling will do. I can only imagine that Steiner’s book, if published today, would itself be called anti-Semitic.


Gene Reynolds, 96.

Gene Reynolds (20th Century Fox, via Everett Collection)Lou Grant castA former teen movie actor whose performing credits don’t amount to much, Reynolds achieved a form of immortality by producing (as well as occasionally writing and directing for) two of the most highly-regarded television series of the 1970s and ’80s. Prior to working with Larry Gelbart on M*A*S*H, his career as a television director tended to such sparkling festivals of wit and perspicacity as Leave it to Beaver, The Farmer’s Daughter, My Three Sons, F-Troop and Hogan’s Heroes (although he did manage to log work on The Andy Griffith Show and Room 222 as well.) I don’t mean to knock Reynolds for this; one goes where the work is. Still, those are not credits to bestir the heart, are they?

M*A*S*H (1972 – 1983) neither asks for not requires a defense, although Reynolds and CBS kept it on the air much too long, and its later years were more often doleful than either witty or affecting, as an air of “Let’s just put another in the can, shall we?” became the prevailing mood. But Lou Grant (1977-1982), which Reynolds helped launch, was bracing: Spun off from a beloved situation comedy, Lou Grant eschewed the comic, instead taking advantage of the post-Watergate esteem in which the American press briefly found itself to examine issues important to a free press, itself vital to the health of a democracy. In addition to Ed Asner, the show featured a terrific ensemble cast: Robert Walden, Linda Kelsey, Mason Adams, Jack Bannon, Daryl Anderson and, as the publisher — a seeming combination of Katherine Graham and Dorothy Schiff — the redoubtable Nancy Marchand. The show, a hit for five seasons, was axed by the network under highly dubious circumstances: Asner, then President of the Screen Actors’ Guild, was vehemently opposed to Ronald Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America. CBS suits naturally denied the actors’ advocacy had anything to do with his series’ cancellation, but a cursory look at the ratings for 1982 proves them liars: It still had a 27 share in its final season, and networks routinely renew series with far more dismal numbers than that.


Terry Hands, 79.

Hands, whose work with the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1966 to 1986, including the years (1978 – 196) in which he ran it with Trevor Nunn and those in which he was the solo Artistic Director and Director Emeritus, includes the 1983 Cyrano de Bergerac (performed in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing) starring Derek Jacobi,  arguably the most beautiful edition of Rostand’s romantic verse comedy ever produced. What Christopher Plummer’s Cyrano was to the 1970s, Jacobi’s was to the 1980s.


Kirk Douglas ( Issur Danielovitch), 103.
Ace in the Hole - Douglas and ArthurAce in the Hole - Douglas and Sterling

Douglas was not a great actor — his emotional range was too limited — but in the right role he could be a very effective one, and very few stars of his stature played unpleasant characters as often. His specialties were an unyielding stoicism, often physical, and a barely submerged rage that bubbled under the surfaces even of his more lighthearted performances such as his Ned Land in the Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). And while his old-fashioned liberalism was the driving engine for some of his better movies, and performances, such as Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory (1957) and as the titular hero of Spartacus (1960), both of which he also produced. (Douglas hired Kubrick to direct those two, which are now acclaimed as genius director pictures but were in fact producers’ movies.) He was fascinatingly sexually ambiguous in Out of the Past (1947), seemingly in love with both  Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum; self-righteous as a radio dramatist in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) for Joseph L. Mankiewicz; an authentic Jim (the Gentleman Caller) in the otherwise terrible, botched film of The Glass Menagerie (1950); frighteningly tormented and dangerously enraged in Detective Story (1951); a mesmeric Hollywood bastard in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); tormented again as Van Gogh in the somewhat romanticized Lust for Life (1956) and in which his sexual equivocation really bothered his friend John Wayne; an engaging Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957); the cheerful villain of The List of Adrian Messenger (1963); and wryly amusing as Wayne’s friendly rival in The War Wagon (1967) in which, although his character was pretty obviously straight, he once again wigged out his co-star by ostentatiously wearing a ring over his gloved finger.

His best role occurred in what is also likely his best movie: The ruthless and amoral reporter Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole (aka, The Big Carnival) for Billy Wilder. It was a picture that received no love in 1950; the press, seeing itself at its worst, hated it, and the public stayed away. But Douglas’ astonishingly fulsome portrait of a conniver who sees in one man’s misfortune the opportunity of a lifetime, and whose heartless ambition and growing egomania blind him to his fatal errors is a performance that, while encouraging censure and holding viewers both rapt and repelled, somehow manages to keep us from hating him completely. That’s a neat balancing act, and whatever Douglas’ limitations, you have to admire his achievement.

Surviving first a helicopter crash in 1991, then a debilitating stroke in 1996 that took away what, after his dimple, was his most distinctive attribute — his highly imitable voice — Douglas is, in death, being vilified by a highly dubious accusation which in the absence of any proof stronger than an old anonymous online rumor I will not dignify by repeating. That it might conceivably be true (and just as conceivably might not be) is, under the circumstances, less than compelling. I might be anything you choose to label me, but under our laws you must demonstrate my guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As Christopher Hitchens was fond of noting, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”


Paula Kelly, 76

Sweet Charity - Moreno, MacLaine and Kelly

Sweet Charity (1969): Chita Rivera, Shirley MacLaine and Paula Kelly in the exuberant “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” number. [Getty Images photo by Lawrence Schiller]

Primarily a dancer — she had a Masters in modern dance and experience with the Martha Grahame, Donald McKayle and Alvin Ailey companies — Kelly was better known for her acting and musical theatre performances: Heading the Los Angeles company of Mikki Grant’s Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (1972); in the Ivan Dixon-directed movie of Sam Greenlee’s incendiary novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973); as, appropriately, the sexy “Leggy Peggy” in the very entertaining 1974 Bill Cosby/Sidney Poitier comedy Uptown Saturday Night; for a recurring role on Night Courtand as one half (with Lonette McKee) of a besieged Lesbian couple victimized by their neighbors in the 1990 television film of Gloria Naylor’s 1982 novel The Women of Brewster Place.

Kelly made an unexpected splash at the 1969 (read: 1968) Academy Awards, dancing to, of all things, the nominated song “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and, later that year, re-created her London stage role as Helene in Bob Fosse’s movie of Sweet Charity. Kelly (along with Rita Moreno) had her best moments in the “(Hey) Big Spender” number and (with Shirley MacLaine) the exhilarating trio “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” These things are a matter of taste, of course, but for me their rooftop dance is the highest moment in the picture: In music (Cy Coleman), lyrics (Dorothy Fields), choreography, staging, cutting (Fosse, Fosse, Fosse), cinematography (Robert Surtees), orchestration (the irreplaceable Ralph Burns) and, especially, performance, it is for this viewer the quintessential 1960s movie dance. Hello, Dolly! cost more than Sweet Charity, and The Sound of Music made one hell of a lot more. But neither has a moment as exciting as these six minutes.


Robert Conrad, 84
The Wild Wild West
An actor known more for his machismo than any particular thespic resonance, Conrad was a likable fixture on our television screens for four years (and for endless seasons of re-runs afterward) as the James Bond-lite co-star, with the extremely amiable Ross Martin, of the truly strange, anachronistic comic adventure series The Wild, Wild West (1965–1969).


Kellye Nakahara, 72 or 73

MASH - Kellye Nakahara and Alda (Hey, Look Me Over)

With Alan Alda in the M*A*S*H episode “Hey, Look Me Over.”

In M*A*S*H, Nakahara was the warm, funny Nurse Kellye (the character named by episode director Alan Alda, who objected to calling her character “Nurse 1”) who, while a minor supporting figure, became an essential part of the show’s ensemble. She was especially memorable in the episode “Hey, Look Me Over” in which she read Hawkeye Pierce the riot act for his superficial view of her.


Pearl Carr, 98.

Sing Little Birdie - Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson

Only Monty Python fanatics will know why I am highlighting Carr, and her most famous song. (Hint: Mao Tse-tung.)


Zoe Caldwell, 86.

Zoe Caldwell and Roy Cooper - Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

With Roy Cooper in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Caldwell won four Tony Awards (for Slapstick Tragedy, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Medea and Master Class). This, coincidentally, tied her for a time with another performer in Master Class, the redoubtable Audra McDonald (who now has six… meaning, if one takes these things seriously, McDonald is officially the Greatest Actress in American Theatre History.)


Ja’Net DuBois (née Jeannette DuBois; aka, Ja’net DuBois, Ja’Net Du Bois), 88, 82 or 75.

Ja'Net Du Bois and Richard B Shull - The Visitor

With Richard B. Shull in the Good Times episode “The Visitor.”

Good Times was one of those television series that began well, devolved badly, and ended up emphasizing all the wrong things. The show’s frequent director, John Rich, for example, was responsible for the ubiquitousness of supporting actor Jimmie Walker’s incredibly annoying catch-phrase “Dy-no-miiiite!” and for insisting it be said in every episode, to which Norman Lear reluctantly acceded. (Had Rich made a similar demand during his tenure as house director on The Dick Van Dyke Show, I think we can imagine Carl Reiner’s response.) Thus, a show that was conceived as a serio-comic examination of the socio-economic reality of all too many black Americans, then and now, became a showcase for an astoundingly un-funny comedian who dragged it down to a level of stupidity so crass and destructive the series’ star left after Season Four. But from the beginning, the cast (Walker excepted) was half the reason for Good Times‘ success, and one of its brightest aspects was the presence, as the Evans family’s reliable neighbor Willona Woods, of Ja’Net Du Bois. Du Bois (who co-wrote and sang the exuberant theme for another Lear spin-off, The Jeffersons) brought a dry wit and a sense of style to her performance and became for this viewer half the reason for tuning in. In a sane world, she would have had great stage comedies written for her. Du Bois’ way with a comic line was so indelible a single exclamation of hers has stayed with me for decades: In an early episode, in which it appeared an elderly woman was reduced to eating dog food, and in which the neighbor in question had invited the family to dinner, Du Bois’ parting shot (“Bone apetite, y’all!”) made me roar. It sounds a bit cruel but in context, and considering Willona’s literacy and sense of fun, the line was exactly right for her. And no one could have delivered it as well, or as charmingly, as Ja’Net Du Bois.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross