‘Mid pleasures and palaces: “Lady and the Tramp” (1955)

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“You guys all think that the world is made up of gags! There isn’t one of you left who could write a lullaby or a love-affair romance in a picture, you all want gags, gags, gags!” — Walt Disney to his Story Department, on the importance of warmth in animation, as recounted by Frank Thomas.

By Scott Ross

Lady and the Tramp (1955) was the first Disney animated feature in widescreen (CinemaScope, as with the previous year’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and remains among the most charming of all full-length cartoons; when I first saw it at age 12 it stayed with me in a way few movies ever do. A modern audience is probably discomfited by the racial stereotyping of the animals — and a couple of human Italians — especially the cats Si and Am, and you can argue that it was a mistake not to leave the old bloodhound Trusty dead at the end (he shows up later with a broken leg)* but the picture is so beautifully designed, structured, animated, voiced and scored that these are very minor cavils.

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The morning after?

Suggested both by a Ward Green story (“Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog”) and some ideas by the Disney veteran Joe Grant, who had a Springer spaniel he called Lady, Lady and the Tramp developed into a cunningly designed and bittersweet narrative, told from a pet’s-eye view, with some surprisingly adult touches: When after a romantic evening Lady and Tramp are discovered sleeping together at sunrise, there is a strong suspicion that something happened between them in the night, a sense later reinforced when Lady’s neighbors, Trusty and the middle-aged Scottish Terrier Jock, offer to make an honest woman of her. As if those eyebrow-raising revelations are not enough, when she’s briefly in the city pound a slightly tatty show-biz female also sets Lady straight on just what a rake Tramp really is. If someone tried any of that with an animated film in today’s weird era of youth-driven Puritanism, I’d hate to hear the yips of Millennial outrage that would follow.

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According to Disney lore, the look of the town in the picture was (like Disneyland’s Main Street, USA) a tribute by Disney to Marceline, Missouri, Walt’s lost Eden. But as his world was bordered by his father’s rural farm rather than the town itself, we’ll just have to take the studio’s word for it. (The style of the houses and streets recalls more the layout of the 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis than the barnyards that circumscribe the early years of Mickey Mouse.) The picture has a lush pictorial quality, and the characters are wonderfully delineated. A lot of talent went into Lady and the Tramp: Its credited directors were Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske; its story was worked on by, among others, Joe Rinaldi and Don DaGradi with un-credited assists from Dick Huemer and even Frank Tashlin; the backgrounds were the work of Claude Coats, Al Dempster and Eyvind Earle; the animators included Don Lusk and John Sibley; and the directing animators were seven of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”: Les Clark, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman and Frank Thomas. Disney is often accused of sentimentality, and the accusations have some merit. But when he and his animators make use of understated emotion, the effect can be devastating, as in the moment when an impounded dog is glimpsed during a howling rendition of “Home, Sweet Home,” a single tear rolling down his furry cheek. The shot lasts only a few seconds, but manages to stand in for the confusion and grief of every animal suddenly removed from its environment and locked in a cage for the offense of being unloved.

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Tramp and Lady about to “kiss”: The great Frank Thomas at work.

Thomas, who rather astonishingly thought he wasn’t a very good artist, did such beautiful work here I would imagine the first image that comes to your mind when you think of the movie is his animation of the spaghetti supper shared by Tramp and Lady: The way they distractedly seem to kiss, and the look in Tramp’s eyes as he nudges a meatball across the plate to Lady. It’s really the first time in a Disney animated feature that love between two characters (aside from mother-love) was depicted as more than an abstract idea; everything that preceded it was about generalized emotion (“Someday My Prince Will Come”) or as something inevitable (Bambi and Faline, Cinderella and her Prince). If there is a more effortlessly charming depiction of the beginning of feeling between two characters in an animated picture, I’m not aware of it.

The voice talent is equally impressive. Barbara Luddy, who would later provide the voice of the fairy Merryweather in Sleeping Beauty and who was middle-aged when the picture was made, gives Lady a gentle sweetness and sense of naïveté that are entirely natural and never cloy. Larry Roberts is a jolly, ingratiating Tramp, likable even at his most insensitive. The wonderful Bill Thompson, who elsewhere was the voice both of Droopy and Spike for Tex Avery and a fat, floppy-nosed, hilariously sissy Indian in Avery’s 1944 Screwy Squirrel short Big Heel-Watha — he was also Smee in Peter Pan and Mr. Wimple and The Old Timer on Fibber McGee and Molly —  not only provided the burred voice for Jock but the Italian cook Joe, an Irish policeman (was there any other kind in 1910?) and, at the pound, the English bulldog and the tunnel-digging Dachsie. Peggy Lee, who wrote the movie’s lyrics, also voiced the torch-singing, Mae West-like Peg, Lady’s human owner Darling and the Siamese cats; Stan Freberg was the gullible beaver, Alan Reed (aka, Fred Flintstone) was the Russian borzoi Boris, George Givot was the excitable Italian restauranteur Tony, Verna Felton the pompous and over-protective Aunt Sarah and The Mellomen (who included Thurl Ravenscroft and Bill Lee) performed the canine quartet.

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Although I’ve never quite understood why the rat that threatens the human’s baby was made to look quite so Satanic, or why it makes a beeline for the nursery, the sequence in the rainstorm during which Tramp rushes in to fight it is among the finest set-pieces of its kind in the Disney oeuvre. Thrillingly animated by “Woolie” Reitherman, it’s of a piece with the Monstro the Whale chase in Pinocchio, the enchanted forest in Snow White and the race with the key in Cinderella, and probably gives a good indication of why Reitherman was soon promoted to Supervising Director on features with The Sword in the Stone. (Although, since he hated sentiment, his movies are seldom as emotionally rich as the best Disney titles; it’s a long, dry stretch between 101 Dalmatians in 1961 and The Rescuers in 1977.) Disney house composer Oliver Wallace contributed one of his loveliest scores, with an especially appealing theme for Lady, and Lee’s terrific lyrics were beautifully set by Sonny Burke. Interestingly, Lee is one of the few litigants who have ever gone up against Disney, and prevailed. Aware that she and Burke were being cheated of their royalties, she sued in the 1980s and was awarded $2.3 million in damages. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you can take on The Mouse and win.

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Peg singing “He’s a Tramp.” Note the sun’s rays providing her spotlight. 

As to the perceived racial insensitivity of the original: Better Si and Am (and Tony and Joe, for that matter), say I, than the ludicrous, incredibly ignorant specter, in Disney’s ill-advised 2019 live action “remake,” of a blithe interracial married couple… in 1910… in the Jim Crow Deep South… in New Orleans, for crissake!… a full 50 years before Loving v. Virginia. But as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton never let a good crisis go to waste, so too does the new, super-cuddly megamorph Disney Company never lose an opportunity to show how with-it, hip and multi-culti it is, regardless of pesky, inconvenient historical fact. Is it any wonder so many young Americans now know nothing whatsoever about their country’s past?


*Speaking of Trusty: I wonder whose idea it was to remove the accurate red rims around his bloodhound eyes? If you watch the clips on the DVD of the old Wonderful World of Color series from the early ’60s, you can see them; in later releases they completely disappear. I assume this was effected during the video 2006 restoration, but since I hadn’t seen the picture in a theatre since 1973, I may be wrong.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

 

Breeding war: “The Lion in Winter” (1968)

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By Scott Ross

To however low (and, seemingly, terminal) an ebb theatrical culture has sunk today, and as unimportant as non-musical plays are to the American theatre now, the indifference of the Broadway crowd to good new plays is scarcely a new phenomenon. In early 1966, James Goldman’s wonderfully literate dark historical comedy The Lion in Winter, despite a cast headed by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, ran a scant 92 performances before shuttering. When the far from inevitable movie adaptation premiered two years later (Martin Poll, the producer, had originally optioned Goldman’s novel Waldorf for the movies) the play almost instantly attained a “classic” status that must surely have surprised its author.

The Lion in Winter - Hopkins, Merrow, O'Toole

Goldman is, like his brother William, one of my favorite writers, and the Plantagenets were good to him: In addition to The Lion in Winter, Goldman also wrote the lovely autumnal romance Robin and Marian (1976) featuring both King Richard and King John, and the superb 1979 novel Myself as Witness, in which he revised his opinion, feeling he’d been far too hard on John in the past. (His other major works were the beautifully compact and consequently underrated book for the musical Follies and the marvelous dramatic comedy They Might Be Giants.) Goldman was, like Bruce Jay Friedman, one of the rarer comic/dramatic writers of his time in that his humor was based in wit rather than one-liners and sarcasm; with the possible exception of Friedman’s Scuba Duba (1967) there were probably more sharp aphorisms and Shavian aperçus in The Lion in Winter than in any American play of the time between Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 and The Boys in the Band in 1968. Even his deliberate anachronisms are memorable, as with Eleanor’s “It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.” But what is usually forgotten when that line is quoted are the words that precede it, and those that tumble after:

Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little? That’s how peace begins. 

And warfare is what The Lion in Winter is about: Between the exiled queen (Katharine Hepburn) and her king (Peter O’Toole); between Eleanor and the two sons she does not favor (John Castle as Geoffrey and Nigel Terry as John); between Henry and those he wishes to keep from the crown (Geoffrey and Anthony Hopkins as Eleanor’s favorite, Richard); between those sons and their less-favored parents; between the boys themselves; between Henry and Philip of France (Timothy Dalton); and, although the queen denies it, between Eleanor and her possible successor (Jane Morrow as Philip’s sister Alais). Here, action is negotiation — sometimes dispassionate but most often spiked with venom — and when the verbal battles begin in earnest they are as wounding as the speakers can make them without fatality. Of the antagonists, only John is not intellectually equipped to draw blood, and of the boys only Geoff has inherited the sly cunning of which both his parents are masters; like Henry and Eleanor he is Machiavellian avant la lettre, but lacking either John’s doggedness or Richard’s physical prowess,* he is condemned always to be on the sidelines. And interestingly, Eleanor, for all her shrewdness, and her innate understanding of how best to wound Henry, consistently tips her hand, giving her estranged husband exactly the knowledge he needs to thwart her.

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“My, what a lovely girl. How could her king have left her?”

Although O’Toole was too young for his role — Hepburn was almost exactly the right age for hers — he’d played Jean Anouilh’s Henry (by way of Edward Anhalt) in the movie of Becket (1964) and the conceptions are similar. His performance here is one of those zesty, grand, playful characterizations tinged with melancholy, and even genuine despair (Jack Gurnsey in The Ruling Class, Eli Cross in The Stunt Man, Alan Swann in My Favorite Year) that dot his filmography, and O’Toole gives everything to it: Subtlety, understatement, wit, sparkle, dash, elan, anguish and, when necessary, roars of outrage, the lion bearded in his den and refusing to be slain. Hepburn too rises superbly to the challenge, and if that famous Yankee accent is only slightly disguised, it isn’t a matter of dire concern; the realistic location sets (Ireland standing in for Chinon, where in fact there was no Christmas Court in 1183) are already so at war with Goldman’s Wildean witticisms that another layer of artificiality hardly matters. Her age, which she’d begun to let show in Long Day’s Journey into Night, works for her characterization, especially in the scene where she confronts herself in a mirror; her crow’s-feet, nearly lashless eyes and the general ravages of age  upon the body — she was 60 when the picture was filmed — work wonderfully for her characterization (although she made every effort to cover her throat throughout.) When she’s lashing out at Henry, rolling about on her bed and evoking his father’s body, she’s electrifying, and when she gives up utterly, shattering. And she’s seldom been as well-matched as she is by her co-star here. Not even Spencer Tracy had the sort of feral, animal-like intensity O’Toole brings to Henry. Tracy was tough, too, but softer-spoken, and anyway Hepburn nearly always deferred to him, in a way that could be nauseatingly servile. Only in Adam’s Rib is she his equal, and even there she becomes shrill, and he wins. Goldman wrote Eleanor and Henry like deadlier versions of Benedict and Beatrice: No quarter is given by either, and however much blood is let, the match is never really over. Although, like Tracy, Henry is the eventual victor, and Eleanor is sent back to her prison, they salute each other at the end, and you know they will be at it again hammer and tongs in another year. Above everything else, for these two, engagement is all.

The Lion in Winter - O'Toole, Dalton (The royal line on Sodomy)

“What’s the official line on sodomy? How stands the Crown on boys who do with boys?”

Whether Goldman believed that Richard was homosexual — his sexuality is still debated, and uncertain — or ever had a physical relationship with Philip II is by the way; that he used the possibility so effectively is what matters, and it leads to one of the finest scenes in the movie, allowing both Dalton and Hopkins, whose first picture this was, to command our attention and for the former to illustrate that Philip is no mean plotter himself. That the sequence is also structured like a sex-farce, with the various brothers, conspiring with Philip, forced to hide behind arrases, makes it all the more delicious. Terry is a bit hampered by Goldman’s conception of John as an open-mouthed dolt but Castle is wonderfully sly as Geoffrey, making us for the most part merely guess at the character’s possible hurt from a lifetime of being ignored by both Mummy and Daddy. And although Alais is largely a pawn, and knows it (“Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look,” she says to Eleanor, who loves her and uses her equally, “and I’m the only pawn. I haven’t got a thing to lose. That makes me dangerous.”) Merrow is adept at depicting both her anguish and her understandable rage.

Although, as noted above, the movie’s dirty Medieval realism is at odds with Goldman’s brittle humor, his screenplay cunningly shifts scenes played in one set to the physical world of Henry’s brood, both inside Chinon and out. This encompasses Douglas Slocombe’s rich cinematography, Peter Murton’s thoroughly lived-in sets, the splendid costumes by Margaret Furse. John Barry’s score, which won him his third Oscar,† was criticized in some quarters for its alleged evocation of Stravinsky (specifically, one presumes, his Symphony of Psalms) but I think the stronger antecedent influences are Orff’s Carmina Burana and the dark Gregorian chants on which Barry’s striking chromatic vocalese seems to me more obviously based. And anyway, who says Igor Stravinsky is the only composer permitted to write dissonant Latin choral pieces?

The strong pictorial and thespic direction is by the former film editor Anthony Harvey, who knew when (and how long) to hold on interesting actors speaking incisive dialogue. It seems to be a lost art.

The Lion in Winter - cast


*Goldman’s conception of Richard was as mutable as the future king himself: As Robin and Marian begins, Robin Hood (Sean Connery) has become fed up with the Third Crusade and pointedly refers to Richard Harris’ war-mongering Lionheart as “a bloody bastard.”

†1968 was an especially rich year for movie music: Barry’s competitors for the Academy Award that year were Alex North (The Shoes of the Fisherman), Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair), Lalo Schifrin (The Fox) and Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes) and two superb scores that weren’t nominated but well might have been were Schifrin’s Bullitt and Nino Rota’s Romeo and Juliet.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Bimonthly Report: February – March 2020

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By Scott Ross

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Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)
The team’s first feature, a Greatest Hits collection of now-classic comedy bits.


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My Darling Clementine: Preview edition / Release version (1946)
John Ford’s return to studio filmmaking after the Second World War. A small masterpiece diminished, although not quite ruined, by Darryl Zanuck’s interference.


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In a Lonely Place (1950)
A minor psychological thriller (based on a major popular literary exercise by Dorothy B. Hughes) with superb performances by Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, its reputation expanded to impossible dimensions of greatness by over-enthusiastic auteurists. There was no place in my review to note this, but the movie’s costumer designed low and weirdly over-broad shoulders for all of Bogart’s jackets; he looks like a badly-dressed mannequin newly escaped from the window of a vintage clothing shop specializing in zoot-suits.


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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
John Huston’s adaptation of the 1927 novel (published in English in 1935) by the pathologically reclusive “B. Traven” is 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.


Little Caesar
Little Caesar (1931)
With The Public Enemy (also 1931) one of two movies that created, and defined, the gangster picture and made Warner Bros. a haven for tough movies about important social issues. It doesn’t hold up as well as the Cagney but Edward G. Robinson’s performance is certainly worth a look, even if he’s not especially well served by the  workmanlike script until the last five or ten minutes.


Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Hot Lead and Cold Feet
An amiable, funny but very loud Western comedy from the Disney studios in which Jim Dale plays twins — one a missionary, the other a violent rowdy — as well as their crafty old father (that’s Dale, above, with the beard), Darren McGavin is the town’s crooked mayor, Don Knotts its belligerent sheriff, Karen Valentine the feisty schoolmarm, Jack Elam an incompetent gunslinger called “Rattlesnale” and John Williams, who was apparently born old, a put-upon valet. It was made with no particular style and with little on its mind other than providing some clean laughs. For the most part, it gets them. As usual with movies of the period, the rear-screen projection is miserable, but the Deschutes National Forest locations are glorious, and even the inevitable children (Michael Sharrett and Debbie Lytton) are tolerable. Like so many comedians, Jim Dale had too odd a face for movie stardom, with a narrow head, a recessive chin and a nose that seemed to have been stretched out of putty. But he’s as nimble, affable and inventive onscreen as his stage reputation suggested; in a couple of years he would be Barnum on Broadway. The picture’s stunt crew was kept so busy its members got special credit in the opening titles, and they’re like the Proteans in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, tumbling in and out of scenes, falling off cliffs and buildings and seemingly everywhere at once.

For those who treasure pointless trivia, the movie’s associate producer was the hitherto stultifyingly obnoxious Disney child star Kevin Corcoran, who seems to have gone on to a long career as an assistant director.

Anything that kept him behind the camera rather than in front of it…


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To Have and Have Not (1944)
Arguably a trivialization, and certainly not a true representation, of its grim source, this is still one of the most entertaining movies of the Hollywood Studio era. The ultimate Howard Hawks movie, and (to my mind, anyway) his best. It’s one of the most pleasing ways I know to spend an evening, and it never fails to pick me up.


Cowboy (1958)

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A quirky, sometimes appalling, occasionally funny adaptation of a 1930 memoir by Frank Harris — yes, that Frank Harris — of his days as a youth in the United States trying to become a cattle man. (Jack Lemmon, as Harris, eschews the English accent, and indeed the filmmakers omit any sense of the character being anything but 100% American, from Philadeplhia, yet.) Dalton Trumbo, in his blacklist period, wrote the script, with Edmund H. North as his front. Intended as the cinematic equivalent of radio’s “adult Westerns” such as Gunsmoke, The Six-Shooter, Frontier Gentleman and Have Gun Will Travel, the picture is an oddity in that it contains more deliberate cruelty to animals than I think I’ve seen in any other fiction film, and with few exceptions the cattlemen on the drive are irresponsible, cowardly and murderous… and that’s when they’re at their “fun,” as when they toss around a rattlesnake which, thrown about the neck of a tenderfoot (Strother Martin) bites and kills him; when Lemmon’s Harris objects, and calls them on their responsibility for the man’s death, they all turn on him. Harris becomes more and more of a hardass and a martinet as the drive continues, and who can blame him? Cowboy isn’t merely an adult Western, it’s an anti Western. See it, and you may be so disgusted you’ll never want to see another.

While Lemmon gives his usual engaging performance, brash boyishness alternating with hard-won maturity, it’s difficult to judge Glenn Ford’s, because it’s always difficult. The surest way to keep me from giving some movie a chance is to tell me Ford is the star of it. (I’ve deprived myself of Gilda for decades because he’s in it.) He was no actor, so what exactly was he? A movie star, I suppose, but even that puzzles me; he made Gregory Peck look like Laurence Olivier. And at least Peck improved as he aged; Ford stayed resolutely Ford. Brian Donlevy has a nice role as an aging, gentle but bibulous lawman, although the director, Delmer Daves, sabotages it by having him die off-stage. Among the trail-hands are Dick York as a young rake, Richard Jaeckel as one of the worst of the hell-raisers, and King Donovan as the likable cook. Daves’ direction is serviceable but seldom more, and the widescreen cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr. has a number of puzzling moments when the camera either shakes, or moves abruptly, and that feel like mistakes left in out of an over-zealous attachment to the budget.

One of the best things about Cowboy is its opening titles, the distinctive, witty work of Saul Bass set to a rousing, Coplandesque theme by George Dunning. Those two minutes are so good the movie almost can’t hope to compete with them.


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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
A Technicolor® curio. Although ostensibly based on the 1949 Broadway musical that made a star of Carol Channing, as well as on its source, Anita Loos’ comic novel of 1925, the movie jettisons the plot and most of the Jule Styne/Leo Robin score, adds a couple of pleasing songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, and although Loos’ book is one of the most famous, indeed era-defining, books of its time, capriciously alters its time-frame from the Roaring ’20s to the Mordibund ’50s.


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Wolfen (1981)
The director (and co-writer) Michael Wadleigh’s beautifully conceived and executed exercise in environmental horror, despite studio interference, is a movie that looks better — and more prescient — with every passing year.


 

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The Towering Inferno (1974)
In spite of everything, this gold-plated all-star “disaster movie” somehow still works, at least on the level of exciting trash.


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The Train-Robbers (1973)
A quirky, wonderfully entertaining late John Wayne Western, written and directed with intelligence, style and sly humor by Burt Kennedy.


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Cromwell (1970)
Ken Hughes, directing a script he wrote (with interpolations by the playwright Ronald Harwood) delivers a pointed depiction of the English Civil War starring Richard Harris in the title role and Alec Guinness a splendid Charles I. The political parallels to our own age and place should be studied, and countervened with all speed.


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The Big Sleep (1946)
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 original.


Tall in the Saddle (1944)

Tall in the Saddle - Wayne and Raines

A fairly routine ‘40s Western with an odd addition — and no, I don’t mean what in Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks memorably termed Gabby Hayes’ “authentic frontier gibberish.” I’m referring to Ella Raines as a frontier wildcat. Raines’ character has no emotional filters, and the actress doesn’t reign her in; hers may be the most aggressively unpleasant performance in John Wayne’s filmography. She does elicit from Wayne a memorable set of responses, however, when he walks away from her in quiet defiance and she shoots in the direction of his departing back; each time one of her carefully aimed bullets hits something in front of him or to his side, he staggers slightly, and winces. Imagine… John Wayne startled… and by a woman!


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Dumbo (1941)
Arguably the most emotionally plangent of all Disney features, this 64-minute charmer about the elephant child whose oversize ears become an irresistible asset also boats one of the finest song-scores ever composed for a movie.


Born Free (1965)

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Virginia McKenna as Joy Adamson and Bill Travers as George Adamson, with the lioness who “plays” Elsa.

This adaptation of the 1960 bestseller by Friederike Victoria Adamson (nicknamed “Joy’ by her second husband) is one of the most pleasing nature movies ever made, perfect entertainment for children. Not there’s anything remotely childish about it, only that it contains beautiful shots of its African savannah setting, wonderful animal photography (the cinematographer was Kenneth Talbot), is only very occasionally upsetting, and is for the most part as comprehensible to a small child as to an adult. The picture holds the same sweet fascination as a good boy-and-his-dog story — White Fang with lions, and a girl hero — as Joy (Virginia McKenna) and George Adamson (McKenna’s real-life husband Bill Travers) first adopt and then attempt to reintroduce the lioness Elsa back into the wild, and Lester Cole’s screenplay is smart enough to be straightforward, and to present the relationship between the Adamsons as human and not idealized. McKenna makes a wonderful Joy Adamson, charming and maternally devoted to Elsa (the couple was, perhaps significantly, childless) and Travers is himself a bit of a lion; his prickly responses to his wife’s sentimental obsession finds its parallel with Elsa and her eventual mate.

Geoffrey Keen gives a nicely judged performance as George’s boss, and Peter Lukoye is delightful as the couple’s native retainer. James Hill’s direction is refreshingly clean and entirely uncluttered by the sorts of attention-grabbing, studiedly spectacular shots which would almost certainly mar a contemporary movie of this material. And John Barry, who won two Oscars for the picture — one for his music and one for the end title song he wrote with Don Black, the latter of which I recall as pretty much ubiquitous in the ‘60s — composed one of his distinctive scores, accommodating appropriate African rhythms (and, occasionally, instrumentation) and melding them with his own, string-and-horn-heavy melodic invention.

Horribly, both Joy and George were later murdered in Africa, in separate incidents (although her death was initially reported as the result of lion attack) perhaps proving they had less to fear from wild animals than from their own species.


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Jack Lemmon as Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews as Julie Andrews

That’s Life! (1986)
A remarkably assured Hollywood home-movie, sharp and unexpectedly moving. Even more than the gleefully anarchic semi-autobiography of S.O.B. (1981), That’s Life! is, despite that lousy title, perhaps Blake Edwards’ most deeply personal project.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology: March 2020

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By Scott Ross

Mart Crowley, 84. The writer of the first important American play completely peopled by gay men (plus one possible closet-case). The Boys in the Band may be dated, but its importance, and that of its author, remain evergreen.

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.


Max von Sydow, 90.
There were many who felt that, with Marlon Brando, Von Sydow as one of the two greatest actors in movies. Playing Who’s Best is always a mug’s game, but Von Sydow was one of those rare actors, like Gene Hackman, who seemed incapable of giving a poor performance. (He could be miscast, but that’s a different matter.) Beginning in 1957, when he became famous as a Medieval knight playing chess with Death he appeared in 11 Ingmar Bergman films: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries. Brink of Life, The Magician, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Passion of Anna and The Touch and was, with Liv Ulmann (who was in ten for Bergman) the face of Swedish cinema generally, and of Bergman specifically.

Above, left to right: Von Sydow playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957); with Julie Andrews in Hawaii (1966); with Bibi Andersson in John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter (1970); with Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973); with Robert Redford and Addison Powell in Three Days of the Condor (1975); with Pelle Hvenegaard in Pelle the Conqueror (1987).

Perhaps the most striking thing about Von Sydow, aside from his height and his thin, gaunt face and body, was the intelligence he inevitably projected. There are actors who are never believable as unlettered morons, and others (De Niro is a good example) you can’t imagine reading a book. Von Sydow could play a peasant, or a laborer, as he did for example in his beautiful performance in Billie August’s adaptation of Martin Andersen Nexø’s Pelle the Conqueror (1987) but even there his eyes exhibit thought as deep as his limitless love for his son. And although the Swedish actor looked severe and the roles he undertook often demanded unyielding strength of character in the face of adversity, he was also often soft-spoken and kindly on screen, as he was in the movie for which most Americans remember him. As Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1973) his selfless acts, like his faith, were as much a matter of human decency as of religious custom.

Von Sydow became a more international movie figure in the 1960s, assaying the role of Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and the monstrously inflexible Reverend Abner Hale in the very fine adaptation of one-sixth of James Michener’s wonderful historical novel Hawaii (1966). He was an elegant villain in the spy thriller The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and the conflicted Russian agent in John Huston’s woefully underseen The Kremlin Letter (1970). Returning to Sweden (and Ullmann) he was in the two-part Jan Troell epic The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972) and, in America, the assassin in Three Days of the Condor (1975) who shows surprising restraint when his quarry proves his mettle.

Most of the projects in which Von Sydow appeared during (to use a nifty phrase from Paddy Chayefksy) his emeritus years were, aside from Pelle, unworthy of his time or talents. And while Woody Allen cast him in a thankless role in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) he did at least give Von Sydow one deathless line: “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”


Lyle Waggoner, 84.

Waggoner was a handsome lox on The Carol Burnett Show for seven years, and while I doubt many missed him when he departed (as they did Harvey Korman) as with Zeppo Marx there was something about the show with him that wasn’t there when he was gone. Just what, I don’t know. A kind of attractive amateurishness, perhaps, that Vicki Lawrence also shared in the early days, until she grew into her own as a comedian. I can honestly only recall three Waggoner moments with any clarity: As Mark Spitz on a talk show, memorable only because when asked a question he spat a mouthful of water; Gloria Swanson suggesting to him that they go away for the weekend… to Algiers; and cracking up at Tim Conway’s Nazi interrogator when he revealed his secret weapon: A strangely adorable Hitler hand-puppet.


Terrence McNally, 81.

Terrence McNally - Jake Mitchell

Photo by Jack Mitchell

McNally is one of those odd figures whose work is both stimulating and almost determinedly frustrating. Although his gift for dialogue — especially comic dialogue — was enviable, he had a maddening tendency in his full-length work to restate in his second acts everything his first acts revealed, mitigating their effectiveness and giving the spectator a numbing sense that he could have left at intermission and missed nothing of importance.

Yet, like his contemporary Mart Crowley, who also died this month, McNally was an important figure in the emergence of gay playwrights in the late 20th century, in the latter’s case as early as 1965, when his play And Things That Go Bump in the Night premiered. It was almost universally reviled, and not wholly without reason, as it revealed a nastiness that cropped up again and again in his work. (Although one might well argue that had this unpleasantness been heterosexual in nature the vitriol invoked against it would have flowed less freely.) But much of the opprobrium cast its way had to do with the central character of the sadistic gay son.

The play came an interesting time. The late critic John Simon had often inveighed against what he saw as homosexual playwrights attempting to “sneak a cuckoo’s egg into a nest of a different feather”; a year later, Stanley Kauffmann would unleash a small tsunami in the theatre with his essay “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises,” accusing gay writers of presenting homosexual characters and themes wrapped in heterosexual clothing; and three years after, the year before Stonewall, William Goldman, in his influential book The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway would echo these sentiments. As with Kauffmann, and although his tone could be snide, Goldman’s approach was essentially sympathetic (“After all,” he wrote, “the homosexual is here, and he’s not going anywhere. It might be nice to know, at last, what’s really on his mind.”) but was seen as bullying. I think these men had a point. Not being free to write openly, as he wished, about what affected him and those like him, for far too long the gay playwright was among the most closeted of all show-business practitioners and had, perforce, to use subterfuge. It limited him, cramped his work, and made his growth nearly impossible when he had to place in the mouths of heterosexual men and women what should have been said between two men.* (Or, if the writer was a Lesbian, two women.) Simon, who had, just before And Things That Go Bump opened, repeated this lament, was less than happy to see his hope come to fruition. “Well,” he opined, “now we have an honest-to-goodness homosexual play, and is it ever an abomination!” Thereafter, McNally included a John Simon joke in nearly every play where it might fit, and which Simon usually got a chuckle out of, although he felt that some of them weren’t as good as others.

The Ritz - Moreno, Stiller and Weston (resized)

“The Ritz:” Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller and Jack Weston

McNally’s work after the debacle of And Things That Go Bump concentrated on one-acts: Botticelli, Sweet Eros, Witnes, ¡Cuba Si!, Noon (all 1968), Bringing it All Back Home and Next (both 1969), Bad Habits (two one-acts, Ravenswood and Dunelawn, 1974), Whiskey (1973) before returning to the full-length form more or less permanently with Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? (1971). Considering his penchant for redundancy, he might have been well advised to stick with one-acts. Still, there were some winners along the way. The Ritz (1975), an old-fashioned, knockabout farce, turned the form on its head by setting the action in a gay bathhouse (ask your uncle, if he survived the plague). The two-hander Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1982), about two homely, lonely middle-aged “losers,” was a success, although when the inevitable movie was made the man, originally enacted by F. Murray Abraham, was cast with Al Pacino and the woman, played in New York by a pre-Misery Kathy Bates, was Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s Only a Play (1982 and 1986), was very funny for one act before (surprise!) falling apart in the second, a problem that also dogged the two versions of The Lisbon Traviata (1989).

Here, however, an interesting problem arose. McNally came under fire for having one of the two gay men in Act One commit an act of bloody homicidal violence against his lover in Act Two. The playwright obediently softened this ending and, as a result, ironically lost the act’s (indeed, the entire play’s) raison d’être. The first act consists of a long, frequently hilarious, conversation between two obsessed opera queens, and when the more serious of the two comes home to find his partner with another man, the murder he commits brings the opera obsession full circle; it’s horrific, bigger than life, and perfectly in keeping with the notion of opera fandom as a defining obsession containing (and, ideally, sublimating) grand passions and outrageous acts. The muted ending of the play’s revision is more like a dying fall — perfectly reasonable, perhaps, but reason is not the state of mind the play was concerned with.

Love! Valor! Compassion! cast with Joe Mantello and Terrence McNally (resized)

Love! Valor! Compassion! The Broadway cast with their director, Joe Mantello, and McNally

McNally’s 1988 response to AIDS, Andre’s Mother, was an almost perfect little play, four pages long, restrained and elliptical. Adapted by McNally into a half-hour drama for Public Television in 1990 and starring Sada Thompson, Sylvia Sidney and Richard Thomas, the playlet’s self-containment was beautifully expanded, the ending deeply moving. It was with the 1994 Love! Valour! Compassion! that the playwright scored his greatest triumph, and produced his best and most well-rounded play. Set on three holiday weekends of a single summer, at the country estate of a Jerome Robbins-like choreographer, it is by turns Chekhovian and unabashedly theatrical, an examination of friendships, love and life grinning into the face of doom. Nathan Lane, who had played Mendy, the Mendy Wager figure (originally performed by Mendy Wager) in The Lisbon Traviata and also performed in McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), headlined a cast that included John Glover, Stephen Bogardus and the extraordinary Justin Kirk. The original production won the 1995 Tony for Best Play.

Master Class (1995) followed, a distinct step backward. Although this might be an opera queen’s ultimate play, and while Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald won Tonys, this fictionalized depiction of Maria Callas toward the end of her life suffered from the typical McNally malady of a second act that did little but regurgitate the ideas of the first, but somehow managed to win Best Play… proving perhaps the paucity of great American drama on Broadway as the Millennium approached. By contrast Corpus Christi (1998), a brave allegory in which a group of gay men re-enact the Passion, met with all-too-predictable howls of protest (along with death-threats from followers of The Prince of Peace) and a cowardly response from the Manhattan Theatre Club, which first canceled and then reinstated the original production.

I’m not conversant with McNally’s later plays, have only middling interest in the musicals for which he wrote the books (Here’s Where I Belong, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, The Visit, A Man of No Importance and Catch Me If You Can) and absolutely none in his three opera librettos in collaboration with the composer Jake Heggie. (I’ve only loved one opera in my life, but then who, other than a reactionary — or reactive — fool doesn’t love Porgy and Bess?) And if his plays are highly variable, his status as a lively éminence grise of modern American dramaturgy was assured long ago. It is, therefore, disheartening in the extreme to note that his death is being promoted as part of a fear-mongering campaign. According to the vaunted Wikipedia, which has in its necrologies recently climbed onto the current insane “The plague is coming!” hysteria-wagon over an influenza virus that has reduced the populace of seven continents to puddles of melted jelly, McNally, who had two serious health problems, not the least of which was lung cancer, “died of complications from COVID-19.” The source for this diagnosis? “The cause was complications of the coronavirus, according to [McNally’s] husband, Tom Kirdahy,” reports The New York Times. And Kirdahy is a virologist? A physician? A coroner? No. He’s a theatre producer.

The Times obituary goes on, “Mr. McNally had chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and had overcome lung cancer [emphasis mine].” As Eliot M. Camarena observes, “So, as with many of the [COVID-19] deaths, he died with the virus but not because of it.” Wikipedia likewise is now routinely, and opportunistically, citing COVID-19 as the “cause” of deaths on its obituary page, mostly for the elderly who have actually died of existing conditions possibly exacerbated by the virus, reflexively and irresponsibly disseminating misinformation — or perhaps disinformation? — and hoping to frighten you like most corporate media.. (And don’t think for a moment Wikpedia is now in any way a “grassroots” organization.)

But then as Eliot further notes, quoting Hecht and MacArthur, “Who the hell’s gonna read the second paragraph?”


*Although being homosexual and writing about heterosexuals didn’t seem to limit Tennessee Williams’ dramaturgy.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross