‘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.

Lady and the Tramp - Morning

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.

Lady and the Tramp - weeping dog

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

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 wow finish: “Casablanca” (1942)

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By Scott Ross

Probably the moviest of all movies, Casablanca was created in both control and chaos; its screenplay was a mishegoss, yet the picture is considered by many the prime exemplar of Hollywood studio system product.

What’s made is still product, of course — indeed, has never been more obviously so — but there are enough gullible cineastes out there who swallow the “only directors matter” argument, and enough annual spectacles of millionaires handing each other awards, that many when assessing an obvious slick franchise picture still invoke the word “art,” if only for the (usually shoddy) special effects. Casablanca was no less a sausage than 99 per cent of the movies made in Hollywood in 1942, and definitely no more individualized than any factory film of the period. (The Magnificent Ambersons may be the only genuinely idiosyncratic, personal movie made that year, and it’s very much to the point that it was mutilated by its studio for “accessibility” before release.) Professional auteurists can never admit to the simple fact that, however gifted or influential a movie director of the studio era was, the system was streamlined; it depended on enforced collaborative effort, even among the few writer-directors of the time, just as it still does. Anyone who, as Steven Spielberg does on the 2012 Casablanca Blu-ray, goes into rhapsodies over Michael Curtiz is nakedly, and rather desperately, trying to justify his own position because the fact is, direction is less vital than screenwriting, acting and producing, and most directors know it. A competent assistant or second-unit director has enough talent to put together an entertaining movie, and it’s no coincidence that one of the best and most perceptive books ever written on movies is Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, which (surprise!) named producers as the presiding geniuses of the factory.

In the case of Casablanca, the man most responsible for the picture was its producer, Hal B. Wallis. Yet even he, with all the accomplishment and organization he brought to the movie, was not, ultimately, what made the picture an exceptional event. Nor can even Wallis’ exceptional oversight fully account for what the movie became — what it means, and has meant, to succeeding generations of its admirers. Casablanca transcends everything: Its filmmakers, its studio, its moment in history and its original status as a superior popular entertainment. (Not to mention some of its more risible romantic dialogue.) It’s tempting for the neophyte who has read a little (usually not the best) movie history to assume that the picture’s specialness began in the early 1960s when the Brattle Theatre in Boston ran the first of its now-annual Humphrey Bogart festivals during exam week and students in the city discovered, and embraced, the actor generally and this movie in particular, leading to the Bogie cult of the late ‘60s. But Warners, which made the movie, knew the picture was special long before that. Why else make a pilot for a television series in the ‘50s? Umberto Eco said of Casablanca that it “is not one movie; it is ‘movies,’” and I can think of no other picture of World War II, or about that war, that enjoys the kind of resonance Casablanca has; it’s a movie very much of its time, yet somehow oddly timeless.

Casablanca - Bogart, Raines, Henried and Bergman resized

Perfection: Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman

A great deal more credit than is traditionally given for this belongs to Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the authors of the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s upon which Casablanca was based and which James Agee in his contemporary review in The Nation nastily and without foundation referred to, without having perused it, as “one of the world’s worst plays.” (It was unproduced when Warner Bros. purchased it, for a record price, so Agee couldn’t have seen or read it. But then, personal ignorance of a work of popular art didn’t stop him from sneering at, for example, Oklahoma! as phony folk-art without having seen it, which, living in New York in the ‘40s, he could easily have done.) Much of the structure of the eventual movie was in the play, and the characters, and even a lot of the memorable dialogue, were also in place. Casablanca’s screenwriters refined these elements, expanded on and deepened them; certainly the twins Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein were responsible for much of the movie’s verbal wit, it is well known that Howard Koch punched up the politics, and the intrigue and the uncredited Casey Robinson beefed up the romance — sometimes to its, and the movie’s, detriment.

        The genius of the system: Howard Koch, Casey Robinson, Julius J. Epstein
                                                        and Philip G. Epstein

It’s in the speeches, and the occasional monologues, that Casablanca reveals itself as one of the most adult Hollywood movies of the Production Code era. There are moments, such as when the desperate young Hungarian (Joy Page) who is about to sleep with Claude Rains’ Vichy official Captain Renault to obtain an exit visa for herself and her immature young husband (Helmut Dantine) comes to the saloon-keeper Rick Blaine (Bogart) to determine whether the Captain is trustworthy, that are almost disconcertingly risqué by the standards of their time:

Bogart: How did you get in here? You’re under age.
Page: I came with Captain Renault.
Bogart: I should have known.
Page: My husband is with me, too.
Bogart: He is? Well. Captain Renault’s getting broadminded.

It must be obvious to anyone in the audience above the age of 10 what the pair is discussing, and that Rick’s jest is a nod to a ménage à trois. How Wallis managed to get this stuff past the Breen Office, I can’t imagine. Rick’s saving the girl from prostituting herself presumably redeemed the scene, yet studio pictures routinely ran afoul of the censors for far less, and in fact Casablanca did as well. Take Rick’s searing, drunken rebuff of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when she comes back to the club after unexpectedly meeting him earlier and he, shattered by that confrontation, has drunk himself into a state of bitter insobriety… and after we in the audience have seen in flashback what happened in Paris:

Rick: How long was it we had, honey?
Ilsa: I didn’t count the days.
Rick: Well, I did. Every one of ’em. Mostly I remember the last one. The wow finish. A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look in his face because his insides had been kicked out.
Ilsa Can I tell you a story, Rick?
Rick: Has it got a wow finish?

Ilsa: I don’t know the finish yet.
Rick: Go on and tell it. Maybe one will come to you as you go along.
Ilsa: It’s about a girl who had just come to Paris from her home in Oslo. At the house of some friends, she met a man about whom she’d heard her whole life, a very great and courageous man. He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals. Everything she knew or ever became was because of him. And she looked up to him, worshipped him, with a feeling she supposed was love.
Rick: Yes, that’s very pretty. I heard a story once. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard a lot of stories in my time. They went along with the sound of a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs. ‘Mister, I met a man once when I was a kid,’ they’d always begin. Well, I guess neither one of our stories is very funny. Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the kind that tells?

Casablanca 6 resized

Again, there’s no question what Rick is referring to (a tinny piano playing in the parlor downstairs) and his bitterness towards Ilsa (“Or aren’t you the kind that tells?”) is exactly as explicit as it needs to be. She certainly knows what he means; it’s the line that drives her from the café. I don’t know whose work this is, the Epsteins’ or Koch’s or Robinson’s, but it’s just about perfect. It expresses better than tears the nearly unbearable pain both Ilsa and Rick are experiencing, and his hostility, while cruel, has the ring of intoxicated verisimilitude. And that “wow finish”! Vaudeville slang applied ironically to the moment of Rick’s most acute agony. Ridi, pagliacci, ridi.

Robinson was highly esteemed but, perhaps owing to his Mormonism, a man of deep conservative prejudice — he referred in a memo to the black Sam (Dooley Wilson) urging Rick to get away from a potential entanglement with Ilsa as “Darky superstition” when Sam’s concern is quite obviously for a friend and employer seemingly poised to drown in the dangerous emotional currents that once nearly destroyed him. He also cobbled the movie’s worst lines, dialogue that makes audiences groan now and doubtless caused derisive laughter in 1942. It’s Robinson’s writing that dates Casablanca most, and (if only briefly) removes viewers from their otherwise pleasurable identification, making them derisively aware of its cornball elements. The Paris flashback is largely his, and so are cringe-inducing lines like Ilsa’s “A franc for your thoughts” and the picture’s biggest howler, “Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?” No wonder the actors were laughing at the script on the set.

Fortunately, there are few such clinkers in Casablanca, which otherwise boasts one of the strongest, smartest (and wittiest, not always the same thing) screenplays of its time. Whatever the conflicts that existed then, or later arose, between Koch and the Epsteins, and bearing in mind what in it came directly from the play, their patchwork script is a minor miracle of observation and satisfying narrative. And it takes nothing away from them that what is arguably the best sequence in the picture, the defiant singing of the “Marseillaise,” was Murray Burnett’s. The collaborative nature of the movie is a large part of what makes it so remarkable. Auteurists would have us believe that anything good in a movie springs from the director, anything bad from others, usually the scenarists. Casablanca is the perfect refutation of that; almost everything in it is good, and once Wallis had a script he felt he could proceed with, Michael Curtiz was assigned to it.

Bogart, Bergman and Michael Curtiz

I don’t wish to seem to be attacking Curtiz. He was a good journeyman filmmaker, and made some enjoyable pictures: The Errol Flynn vehicles Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) as well as The Sea Wolf (1941) starring Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield. But he was a competent studio craftsman, no more, and to ascribe some sort of stylistic genius to the man who directed such crowd-pleasing Hollywood pap, however agreeable, as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mission to Moscow (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), Night and Day (1946), Life with Father (1947), the Danny Thomas Jazz Singer (1952), White Christmas (1954), The Egyptian (1954), We’re No Angels (1955), King Creole (1958) and The Comancheros (1961, completed by John Wayne) is taking auteurism to a preposterous extreme. Curtiz’ direction of Casablanca is very fine — fast and exciting. It’s a good, workmanlike job of direction, with some nice dolly work and thick slabs of tasty atmosphere, and I doubt Curtiz can be blamed for such lapses as that terrible little model plane in the opening sequence. He and his remarkable director of photography Arthur Edeson, a master of shadow who also lit The Maltese Falcon (1941) evoke a fantasy vision of North Africa, filmed on soundstages and the Warner back lot, filled with the wonderful faces of immigrant actors. Appropriate enough, given that Casablanca is a movie very much about migration, and it’s moving now to see so many European émigré actors for whom not only was reestablishing lost European stardom impossible, just getting a walk-on could be a challenge: S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Madeleine Lebeau, Marcel Dalio, Helmut Dantine, Corinna Mura. They more than enrich the picture — they give it its almost palpable texture. Who can forget Lebeau singing “La Marseillaise” with tears in her eyes? Who would want to?

Casablanca - Madeliene LeBeau resized

 


An aside: Apart from the immense pleasure it always bestows, what prompted me to watch the picture again was my recent reading of Noah Isenberg’s oddly titled We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, [sic] and Afterlife of Hollywood’s [sic] Most Beloved Movie (Norton, 2017). The author didn’t need that third comma, and his subtitle likewise inadvertently suggests that the picture is beloved in or by Hollywood and nowhere else. But this stylistic confusion, as one discovers while reading, is de rigeur for Isenberg, who — rather frighteningly — is a professor and so, one presumes, has influence over the thinking and writing of young people. He frequently peppers his overview with smug little identity-politics eruptions of an especially numbing, knee-jerk variety: Of Wilson’s career, post-Casablanca, for example, he writes, “he returned to the New York stage, playing — with tragic irony — an escaped slave in Bloomer Girl,” an important Broadway musical he mis-identifies in his index as a “musical film.” What is either tragic or ironic about that? Bloomer Girl, set in antebellum (and bellum, and postbellum) America, is concerned with such typical musical comedy concerns as feminism, undergarments and enforced captivity, and the love plot hinges on the abolitionist heroine’s refusal to marry her Southern beau unless he frees his slave (played by Wilson.) Moreover, the actor got a rich score’s best number in the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg “The Eagle and Me,” a glorious ode to freedom. One can only assume Professor Isenberg is entirely ignorant of all of this; his citing of Wilson’s Bloomer Girl role is merely a convenient peg upon which to hang a reactive, faux-scandalized (and, moreover, ill-defined, badly expressed and ultimately meaningless) observation about an actor’s race.

Casablanca - Dooley Wilson

Alas, the entire book bubbles with such little bons mot. Of Rick’s observation to the desperate young Hungarian who asks him what sort of man Captain Renault is, Isenberg ascribes to Bogart’s response (“Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so”) “a wink and nudge,” as if the line was being uttered by Eric Idle, when of course it carries no such macho implication. But that spurious “wink and a nudge” permits the author to impute to the line a smirking, smarmy attitude by a man (boo!) towards a woman (yay!) I’m only surprised the paragraph doesn’t also carry a strategically-placed hashtag trailed by the words “Me Too.” What I chiefly object to here, aside from his poor writing, is Isenberg’s shamelessness. I picture him at his desk, constantly looking over his shoulder as he writes in hopes that someone will notice just how “woke” he is.

Isenberg is ever keen to spot an opportunity for societal trendiness: He writes the old newspaper phrase “burying the lead” anachronistically, as “burying the lede,” for example, and of the movie’s occasional whiffs of possible homoeroticism, the author murmurs that this is “of course” a 21st century issue, when most of the commentary — much of it specious — that drew attention to it was written in the 1980s and ‘90s, if not before. When Robinson remarks in a memo on the memorable sequence in Casablanca in which Ilsa comes to Rick’s apartment over the café in hopes of obtaining the letters of transit everyone knows (but cannot prove) he possesses, “This is a great scene for a woman,” Isenberg loses no time in hitting the fainting couch, rushing forward to condemn this observation by a screenwriter about an acting scene as “his shameful views concerning the perceived nature of women”(!)* Well, goddamnit, it is a great scene for a woman… which is what an actress is. And Ingrid Bergman, it will shock no one to learn, was both.

We’ll Always Have Casablanca does not pretend to be a “making of” tome, for all that it draws extensively on Aljean Harmetz’s indispensable 1992 Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca — Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. I doubt any such volume on this movie will ever replace Harmetz’s, just as no subsequent book on The Wizard of Oz has surpassed her 1977 study of it. But the professor draws so extensively on Harmetz, and his own observations about what Casablanca has come to mean to the world are so trivial (when, that is, they aren’t wrapped self-consciously up in current, jingoistic identity equations) one wonders what a major publisher saw in the book. Still, it’s sobering to read such ineffable tripe about an enduring American picture, and to know that this is the best we can expect now in the realm of popular movie scholarship, particularly when it receives a cover blurb from Sam Wasson saying of it that its idiot author writes “with equanimity, grace and delectable insight.” Where Wasson saw any of that in Isenberg’s manuscript I can’t imagine, but whatever its flaws (and, as opposed to Isenberg’s book, they are minimal) a movie as fulsome, as delicious, as emotionally plangent, as satisfying — as much fun — as Casablanca deserves better than this sort of reactive drivel.


Conrad Veidt and The Joker resized
The faces in Casablanca, and the pleasure they provide, are no small part of the picture’s appeal, and not just the leads. (Or were they “ledes”?) Conrad Veidt, who died in the spring of 1943 and was before that perennially typecast, due to the War, as a Nazi in Hollywood, had more long-term impact on American culture than is commonly supposed, and not merely for his appearance here. He was the wicked Vizier in the 1940 Thief of Bagdad for Alexander Korda, and his likeness was copied pretty assiduously for the Disney Aladdin in 1992. But his most important, and lasting, influence as far as pop culture is concerned, was as Gwynplaine in the 1928 The Man Who Laughs, which directly inspired The Joker of the Batman comics in 1940. Although at least one of the men who participated in the character’s design disputes that, Veidt’s look — the swept-back hair, the heavily marked eyes, the long tapering nose, the almost artificial looking grin and the dark, painted lips, and even the long ears — is too close to the Joker’s for the resemblance to be mere coincidence. As Major Strasser, the Third Reich representative, his sibilance (which he also used as the Vizier) indicates the character’s sinister, Übermensch nature as readily as his thin, pursed lips and pencil-thin mustache.

Casablanca - Bogart, Lorre

Sydney Greenstreet has a much smaller and less decisive role here, as the black marketer Signor Ferrari, than he did as Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, just as Peter Lorre’s appearance as Ugarte is far briefer than his Joel Cairo in the Hammett, but both give value for money — especially Lorre, whose short scene with Bogart in the casino constitutes a tiny master-class in making the most of the little you’re given, notably in the diminutive actor’s use of his large, expressive eyes. I also don’t think Lorre ever looked better than he does in Casablanca, trim and almost beautiful.

I remember being shocked in my youth to realize that the actor who plays Henreid’s underground contact Berger is the same man who appeared as Muley in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and whose choked-out monologue so memorably illustrated the emotional toll the Dust Bowl took on its farmers even before the banks took their land. (“That’s what makes it our’n — bein’ born on it… an’, an’… workin’ on it… an’ dyin’ — dyin’ on it!”) The shock, I think, comes from Berger being so soft-spoken and obviously educated when we’re used to seeing and hearing John Qualen as a pleasant but scarcely intellectually formidable Swede, or as an untutored peasant like Muley. Watching him this way, in a non-stereotypical role, you wonder why someone at one of the studios didn’t see his range while he was exhibiting it.

Casablanca - Henried and Qualen

If Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo comes off as a bit of a pill, it’s really not his fault. Laszlo is one of those characters over whom a halo is forever suspended and with which no actor can do much, even Brando. (Talk about no good at being noble…) The writers let him down, which may have been as much the fault of the times as anything else; for a world in flames, cinematic heroes had to be stalwart, and without a flaw much more damning than a certain stodginess — or at least so the Hollywood studio bosses believed. Henreid was given a nice scene with Bergman, before she goes to Rick to plead for the letters of transit, in which he apologizes for not being what a young woman deserves and which at least indicates that he’s not entirely a heroic automaton. But if Lazlo’s thoroughgoing decency at the end is a bit too good to be true, Henreid occasionally cuts an inspiring figure, as when he commands the band at Rick’s to “Play the ‘Marseille’ — play it!” that helps mitigates such groaners as Bergman having to implore, “Victor, please don’t go to the political meeting tonight!”

Casablanca 6 - Rains and Bogart resized

Claude Rains had enjoyed excellent movie roles before Casablanca and would have a few good ones after, but I don’t think he was ever as relaxed and genial — and funny — as he is here. As the cheerfully corrupt Renault, Rains seems well aware he’s got, if not all the wittiest lines, the lion’s share, and relishes them appropriately. Yet nothing about his performance is studied; he lobs his epigrams lightly, almost carelessly, as if for Renault one witticism is no more important than any other, and where it came from there are plenty more. Rains expresses Renault’s affection for Bogart’s Rick without ostentation, or any even particular favoritism; he’d arrest him if he had to, and regret it, just as he knows at the climax Rick will shoot him if he must. Renault’s conversion at the end (in the play Rick is arrested) would strain credulity but for three related items: He’ll never be able to satisfactorily explain Strasser’s killing, he’s already admitted to Rick his loyalties “blow with the prevailing wind,” and he’s made enough barbed remarks about the Germans to indicate that, for all his alleged neutrality, he’s not quite the complete Quisling he pretends to be. You get all that and more from Rains’ performance without his ever pushing any of it.

Casablanca-Ingrid-Orry-Kelly

Although she is every bit as beautiful now, encased in the time-stopping amber of film, as she was in 1942, it’s probably impossible for younger viewers of Casablanca to appreciate just how breathtaking Ingrid Bergman was, and why she had the enormous impact she did at the time. She claimed to work naturally, without make-up, but of course she did wear it; you have to, to be photographed properly under those arc-lights. Bergman just used a lot less of it. There was a freshness about her the camera loved, and unlike those famous Nordic and Teutonic femmes fatale who preceded her — Garbo, Dietrich — she wasn’t vague, or cool, or above it all. She was direct, and passionate. She wasn’t seductive, but neither was she the girl-next-door. She was a lovely, somewhat earnest young woman, and her quiet intelligence was obvious. Bergman was emotional instead of commanding, and while she wasn’t exactly soignée, she looked good in almost anything. Orry-Kelly’s costumes for her as Ilsa, along with her thick, lustrous hair, soften her slightly hard facial features appealingly, and when she wears one of those cleverly designed, strategically tilted picture hats Bergman is a dream of romance. She has a pair of bookended moments during the “La Marseilles” sequence that illustrate just how wonderfully expressive she could be while doing very little. In the first we see her at her and Victor’s table: Her eyes are averted from the scene, wide and staring into the middle-distance, and in her terror she’s breathing hard, trying to steal herself for her husband’s arrest or assassination. In the second, she’s looking up, at Victor, and allowing a smile — of pleasure at the scene, then of deep pride in him — to spread slowly across her face. It’s then we understand just what he means to her; Rick may have Ilsa’s erotic passion, but it’s a safe bet she’d never feel about him as she does, at that moment, about Laszlo.

Casablanca - Bogart drunk

Casablanca is a collection of such little moments, and small gestures, that convey deeper emotions and greater meanings for its characters. They may be in the service of melodrama but they have a cumulative power, and most of them are either Bergman’s, or Bogart’s. After ordering Sam to play “As Time Goes By” and listening to it for a few bars. Bogart turns to him, starts to say something, and stops himself. “That’s enough,” is what we assume he’s about to say, but in his advanced state of drunken anguish the effort is too great, or he’ll have to say more than he wants to… and anyway, why waste all that masochistic pain? The scene is almost the sequel to Bogart’s misery as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon as he contemplates throwing Brigid O’Shaughnessy over for his partner’s murder. The actor is so right in this sequence that Rick’s pain transcends his gender even as it also comes to stand for the anguish of every man who ever loved, and lost, and found he couldn’t weep over it when he needed to. When you watch him helplessly drowning in Rick’s bitterness, you know how good Bogart could be.

The scene would lose its impact, however, if we hadn’t seen Rick from the beginning of the picture as unflappable and unemotional — a witty embodiment of sang-froid — at which Bogie was especially adept. Rick isn’t a man of action, he’s a man of self-imposed inaction, and you can feel the tension in Bogart between what Rick is, and the image he’s cultivated over his scars. It’s there in his carriage, which seems languid but isn’t, quite; in the white tuxedo that sets him apart from his patrons (except, interestingly, Ugarte); in the clipped speech he affects with some (although not all) of the people around him; and even in the ready wit he displays, itself a form of self-protection. It’s the sort of characterization Bogart was master of, and even when he lets us in he’s seldom emotionally naked, the way Brando could be: There’s always a patina of reserve there, which is why the “Of all the gin-joints” scene is so visceral and shocking. It doesn’t only shatter Rick’s stoicism, or Bogart’s — it obliterates the traditional masculine preserve.


There are a million other little things to notice, and to comment on, in the picture: The way each of the other major characters refers to Rick differently, for example (Ilsa: “Richard”; Renault: “Ricky”; Sam: “Mr. Rick”; Laszlo: “Monsieur Rick”); that Code-defying dissolve from Ilsa and Rick in his apartment to Rick smoking a post-coital cigarette in the window; how overbearing most of Max Steiner’s score is; the rightness of so much of the dialogue and the wrongness of a little (Wallis’ dopey “Beautiful friendship” line at the end, for instance, which now excites idiots to make claims on Renault’s sexuality, and Rick’s.) But you don’t have to justify everything you love as “art,” or even as popular art. Your love is enough. Casablanca isn’t a work of art or even especially important — not in the way Orson Welles’ movies are important, or some of Ford’s, or Renoir’s, or Coppola’s, or Kurosawa’s, or even Oliver Stone’s. We don’t have to tie ourselves into knots trying to make the picture relevant, or blow air into it to inflate its value the way Norman Mailer tried to justify his unrequited lust for the dead Marilyn Monroe by making absurd artistic claims for what was essentially an overly voluptuous body, a certain dazed vulnerability and a nice aptitude for comedy.

I suppose some people might argue that criticism itself is a form of justification, but I think of it more as an explanation than a defense: This is a good performance or a bad picture, and here’s why. In any case, it isn’t necessary for us make extravagant claims for Casablanca in order to cherish it. Bright people who saw it in 1942 or ’43 knew a lot of it was hokum and didn’t take it seriously but probably also recognized at the same time that it was markedly better than the average, written with wit, acted with panache and made with a decent amount of flair. There are all sorts of reasons to love the picture now, but if it resonated especially then, it likely did so most with those who’d endured goodbye scenes of their own, or would soon, with a young man who might not come back. For those couples (and fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and friends) there were no artfully written speeches, and the ache of parting was not mitigated by thoughts of higher purpose.

Maybe, when you get right down to it, Casablanca gave its original audience some laughs, a couple of thrills and a good cry — any one of which might be the best payoff for a wow finish.

Casablanca - Bergman


* This sort of nonsense is now so close to Victorianism I’m surprised Isenberg doesn’t call Robinson an unspeakable cad and offer to horsewhip him for besmirching a woman’s honor.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Oranges on an escalator: “California Split” (1974)

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By Scott Ross

California Split is a potsherd from a culture not far removed, chronologically, from our own but which in appearance, artistic accomplishment on a popular scale, the possibility of progress and of a general maturity is as ostensibly ancient, and as forgotten, as Carthage.

Written by the actor Joseph Walsh, himself a gambler (and who has an unsettling role in the picture as a mercurial bookie) and initially developed by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, California Split focuses on two speculators, the casual novice Bill (George Segal) and the degenerate Charlie (Elliott Gould) who meet during an acrimonious game of poker, form an odd friendship based pretty much entirely on their shared addiction, and, on their uppers, travel to a high-stakes poker meet in Reno where everything they have rides on Bill’s abilities. Although not originally intended as a Robert Altman movie, that admittedly terse précis certainly suggests his approach — seemingly meandering, shaggy-dog stories that illuminate their subjects, and their characters, in ways many more “daring” or “challenging” narrative techniques and stories fail to do, and what the overwhelming bulk of movies never even attempt.

With Altman at his considerable best, only the contours remained the same, by which I mean those readily-identifiable personal traits that marked his filmmaking: The actors’ improvisations, the long takes, the large ensemble casts, the muted palettes, the zooms, the overlapping dialogue. But that is window-dressing, almost by the way. How Altman used film to explore human beings and their relationships to each other, which because it changed from film to film was never predictable, is what we should mean when we think of his work, or refer to anything as “Altmanesque.” In his and Brian McKay’s adaptation of the Edmond McNaughton novel McCabe, for example, what was removed was everything trite and predictable — the gambler dying on the street in Mrs. Miller’s arms, for example. Altman’s McCabe keeps muttering, “I got poetry deep inside me” when he hasn’t (and anyway, what man who is genuinely poetic needs to keep reassuring himself of it?) Yet at the end, sitting in the gathering snow with no witnesses to his murder, he’s become a beautiful metaphor: In death he is poetic… and Mrs. Miller is nowhere around; she’s deep in an opium dream, with Altman ending the movie on a close-up of the oblivion contained within her preternaturally glazed eyes. And that is poetry too.

California Split - Gould, Segal

Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal) about to wager on the names of the Seven Dwarfs.

Although Altman had been experimenting with overlapping dialogue at least as early as MASH in 1970 and certainly relied on it in McCabe, especially in the long first sequence in the saloon, it was for California Split that he developed his multi-track recording system without which his follow-up, Nashville, would not have been possible; it enabled him to capture several conversations at once without our losing track of what’s important. It isn’t over-used in California Split, and never becomes oppressive, but during the opening poker sequence in a large, organized gambling establishment, it’s as essential as the many extras imported from the Synanon organization (or cult, if you prefer). The faces, and the personalities, that come through in these scenes are both peripheral and essential; they’re the milieu into which we’re about to plunge, and they have a tang, an earthy charge, that ground the action and give it savor. I can’t imagine them in any other movie by any other filmmaker.

Despite the cavalier desperation of Charlie and Bill, and the glancing sadness of the women in their lives, a pair of lower-middle class prostitutes played by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, this is a surprisingly buoyant movie, and it lacks the mean-spiritedness that dogs so much of ’70s cinema, especially in the realm of the homophobic. I’m thinking specifically of the sequence in which Prentiss and Welles’ date with the transvestite “Helen Brown” (Bert Remsen) is upset by Bill and Charlie’s need to celebrate their winnings. Although the two, pretending to be vice cops, send the poor man scurrying, the fact that he’s in drag is not made an issue, nor do they abuse him for it; even if their playing with him could be seen as victimization, it’s not the kind of sequence that makes you squirm. You laugh along with it, and Remsen, who plays the role of “Helen” with astonishing delicacy, is somehow able to exit with most of his dignity intact. Indeed, neither Bill nor Charlie ever lets on to “Helen” that they know he’s anything but a well-dressed and sophisticated middle-aged woman, enabling him to maintain his own necessary fiction. Had the movie been made by a professional liberal of the period like Sidney Lumet, I shudder to imagine what Bill and Charlie would have done to the poor man. Calling him a queer would have been the least of it — they’d have probably beaten him up as well. Contrast this with the later bar scene in which a blowsy drunk (Sierra Bandit) spews alcoholic invective in a monologue of self-pity remarkable in its piggishness, hurling the word “faggot” at her absent boyfriend and anyone else who crosses her. She’s clearly meant to be an offensive boor and is treated as such, even by the disgusted bartender (Jack Riley) who’s obviously beyond caring whether she hears his sarcastic comments or not. Charlie and Bill may be cheerfully amoral but they don’t engage in deliberate ugliness. This puts them on a plane above Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John in Altman and Ring Lardner Jr.’s MASH, who, as Richard Corliss observed, in their modish “irreverence” behave like frat-boy bullies to anyone who isn’t on their special wavelength.

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Bert Remsen as “Helen Brown,” flanked by Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss.

In a picture like this the side-long glance is as piquant as the piercing gaze, and the incidental figures have more impact than the leads in other, less alive and incisive movies. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Charlie takes the bus to the racetrack, and can’t get the seat his superstitions demand he take because each of the other riders has his or her own gambler’s fetish, leading to an elaborate switching of seats that is wonderfully farcical but which holds its own, demented logic. And even as Charlie exploits the trusting nature of the woman he sits beside on the bus (Barbara London) when he and Bill win on the long-shot horse Charlie has told her not to bet on she becomes furious at Bill, hilariously hurling oranges at him in her rage as he rides up an escalator. As written by Walsh and directed by Altman it’s a set of scenes at once quirky, idiosyncratic, wildly funny, thoroughly on point and absolutely in character. Bill will likely never see that woman again, but he’ll always remember her…. and so will we. How do you forget someone who throws oranges at you?

Likewise, in an Altman movie even the extras and small-part roles resonate, like the hefty older woman in the opening poker scene, or the receptionist played by Barbara Colby in the magazine office at which Bill works. (A young Jeff Goldblum also shows up, as the editor, forever seeking the errant Bill, who ignores him.) The best and most memorable of these cameos is the Reno barmaid portrayed by Barbara Ruick. She hasn’t many lines, but with her engaging middle-aged mien, white cowboy hat, half-glasses, long hair, large grin, blasé good humor and un-self-conscious dance moves to a private melody only she can hear Ruick is, while nearly always in the background, intensely memorable; you want more of her.*

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In Reno: Barbara Ruick at center.

Pauline Kael, who admired the picture, felt the breakfast meeting between Bill and his bookie had the feel of an expository play scene, its neatness at odds with the looser structure of rest of the picture, but I demur. It helps us understand how close to the financial edge Bill has gotten himself in a relatively short period of serious gambling, and gives what has up to then been merely a disembodied voice on the other end of Bill’s telephone a bodily presence, a life and a psychology. Walsh had become by 1974 the furthest thing from the odd minor child star† he’d been in the ’50s; as the bookie called Sparkie his jumpiness and buried rage give him dimension, and weight. You judge that violence is not his first resort — he’s been carrying Bill for months — but that he’s getting closer to it, and that in turn makes explicable Charlie’s convincing Bill to take that all-or-nothing plunge in Reno. If the sequence is squarer than most of the others in the picture, neither does it feel false or unnecessary.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT - Segal and Walsh

Bill and Sparkie (Joseph Walsh).

Elliott Gould’s gift for cheerful, amoral expansiveness suits Charlie perfectly. He accepts everything that comes his way, even being beaten up, robbed and having his nose broken by an abusive thug of a fellow gambler; before exacting vengeance, he expresses admiration for the punch he’s just received. Charlie lives for the chance, and in common with many degenerate gamblers it doesn’t seem to matter to him whether it’s big or small. (Early in their relationship he and Bill bet each other over the names of the Seven Dwarfs.) A clue to his character is that his girlfriend is a whore, a fact that never seems to bother him, except when it gets in the way of a celebration. That he doesn’t exhibit any of the standard masculine jealousy has less to do, I think, with Barbara (Prentiss) letting him crash at the apartment she shares with Susan (Welles) — unlike with Bill, we never see any other place Charlie calls home — than that getting upset about such an immutable fact of life would probably strike him as a waste of time that could be better spent on fun. He’s so loose and secure in his sexuality he isn’t self-conscious about smearing hot shaving cream on Bill’s abdomen after they’ve been beaten up, and doesn’t respond defensively when Barbara has a light suggestive response to walking in on them, as he later and out of sheer ebullience gives Segal a public kiss on the lips during Bill’s winning-streak. In Gould’s equable performance, although Charlie can be annoying he is just about the happiest, most relaxed and likable wastrel you’ll ever see.

Prentiss is amiable too, and endearingly protective of Welles, but Susan’s character is difficult to pin down. She doesn’t seem quite real, which is no reflection on Welles herself but on the conception of the role; although Susan is appropriately casual about her carnality — when she offers herself to Bill, it’s as if she’s giving him a freebie because she’s un-engaged, and bored, and he’s present — she falls in love with random johns (Bill included) and repeatedly lapses into crying jags over them. We can’t get a handle on her, and she finally becomes slightly irritating. Susan is the one area of the picture where I think Walsh, and Altman, blew it.

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Bill is a far more successful creation, and I suspect Segal is largely the reason. Gould and Altman were gamblers, and Segal admits he was an innocent, which he used to help give Bill a naiveté that lets the audience in. He isn’t our surrogate, exactly, but he’s often as much at sea in Charlie’s milieu as we would be, and that confusion allows us access; when Charlie is explaining a system to Bill, he’s also telling us, but without seeming to, which would be fatal to the movie’s tone. It’s easy at this remove, in the years after he became a weekly comedic fixture on the television series Just Shoot Me, for an audience to forget what a fine dramatic actor Segal was, and is. (Not that an Academy nomination is or has ever been the final arbiter of quality but he got one, in 1966, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) As opposed to Gould, whose humor is brash, Segal is subtler, and more charming. The actors compliment each other, and when at the end Bill has what, to employ an over-used word, we can only call an epiphany, Bill’s (or Segal’s?) reserve gives the moment its quiet power.

California Split - Gould, Segal poker

Bill and Charlie, on a roll.

There’s a certain dread that goes with movies like this: The fear that you’re going to watch the main characters spiral so far downward there’s no going back, especially when, as it does here, everything rides on the outcome; it’s what happens in another under-seen George Segal picture from the ’70s, Ivan Passer’s 1971 study of a middle-class junkie, Born to Win. How Altman and his stars surmount that hurdle is exemplary, even if their muted ending upset the screenwriter. (Henry Gibson, in Mitchell Zuckoff’s oral biography of Altman, remarks that Walsh has been repeating that story “for the last 700 years.”)  When Joseph Walsh’s previous collaborator saw the picture made of the script on which he had initially worked, he lamented that Altman had squandered the climactic final third. He, Spielberg, would, he said, have shaped the material in a way that would have stroked the audience’s response to a glorious orgasm. We can all too easily, and with a shudder, imagine the Spielberg version of California Split, and be doubly grateful he never got to make it.

The DVD in my collection is the 2004 Columbia Tristar release, and it’s in full widescreen. From what I hear, the aficionado should beware the later Mill Creek release, which while slightly (3 minutes) longer is not in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio; it’s allegedly in 1:85:1, which is a considerable difference in framing, and Paul Lohmann’s images are too good to be squeezed, or “panned-and-scanned.”

I’ve also heard California Split dismissed as “minor Atlman,” but no movie that engages you on the levels this one does, or that so beautifully limns the contours of human personality and experience, is “minor” anything.

California Suite - Gould and Segal at racetrack


* Horribly, the actress, the memorable Carrie Pipperidge of the 1956 Carousel, died of a cerebral hemorrhage during filming, which may account for the brevity of her appearance. Married to the composer John Williams, who scored Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Ruick left him a widower with three children. She is the Barbara to whom Altman subsequently dedicated California Split.

† Walsh, who had a good role in Walter Hill’s minimalist 1978 crime thriller The Driver, is probably best-remembered as Danny Kaye’s young, Platonic companion in Hans Christian Andersen (1952) — which given the complex sexuality both of the Dutch writer and of Moss Hart, the author of that movie’s screenplay, feels like more than a bit of a dodge.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Stoned: 28 years of Oliver

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By Scott Ross

I am in the process of re-evaluating the work of Oliver Stone, so herewith some brief thoughts about a few of his representative pictures, 1988 – 2016.

Born on the 4th of July

Born on the Fourth of July (1988) I missed this one when it was new, owing partly to my perpetual aversion to its star, but had I seen it in 1988 I suspect I would have appreciated it more. I had attempted, a few years before, to get through Ron Kovic’s memoir, but was defeated by its grim and seemingly unremitting horror. Now that I have read it, Stone’s adaptation (written with Kovic) almost seems to affirm some of the criticisms leveled at his work as sensationalist and excessive. In the main I do not agree with the opprobrium with which Stone is so frequently assaulted, but Born on the Fourth of July all too obviously embodies those faults others — admittedly, and largely, his political opponents — invariably see in him. Kovic’s book is so vivid, incendiary and felt, it scarcely required embellishments like the wholly fictitious Kara Sedgwick character, or Tom Cruise’s romantic run-through-the-rain-to-the-prom. It most especially did not need the sequence in which he and Willem Dafoe (in, again, a role for whom there is no antecedent in Kovic’s life) roll around on the Mexican sand and argue over whose claims of baby-killing are the most true.

Even such incidents as Kovic’s shattering his leg and nearly losing it are turned, by Stone, into vulgar, overstated show-pieces (he was merely exercising his useless limbs at home, not parading around in a demented attempt to prove he could walk) and when, at the climax, Kovic is beaten by cops at the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, Stone cheats fact by turning it into Kovic’s heroic last-stand when the reality — he was brutally assaulted by para-military creeps who, when they finally realized he was, as he’d been telling them, a wounded vet, behaved with shame-faced obsequiousness — was so much more inherently and honestly dramatic. Wouldn’t that make a better sequence than presenting Kovic as storming (or anyway, wheeling) back into the convention hall to “take” it, a cinematic fantasy that manifestly did not occur? That sort of phony uplift is contemptible, and beneath a man of Stone’s gifts. I will grant that the picture brings up a subject Americans do not like to address, and which Kovic’s book repeatedly rubs our noses in: The sudden emasculation of the sexually incapacitated. That such lifelong impotence is routinely visited on one so young is one of the great, unspoken tragedies of war. Cruise is, as usual, insufferably over-dramatic, an amateur actor who only knows how to perform when the scene calls for overt, hectoring anger. One of the few unadulterated pleasures of the picture is the performance of Raymond J. Barry as Kovic’s gentle, shattered father, unable to cope with the wreck his country has made of his child. There’s dignity in that, and quiet honesty. It’s something Born on the Fourth of July could use more of.


The Doors - Kilmer


The Doors
(1992) Stone’s examination of Jim Morrison, co-written with J. Randal Johnson, has been harshly criticized, not least by members of The Doors, for distorting him and for emphasizing his pretension and his self-destructive behavior. But when a rock star, and a young man of 27, dies suddenly I submit that we may at least wonder whether drugs and alcohol may have played a role. On the other hand, the Morrison depicted in The Doors is so repellent and narcissistic it’s difficult to know how he could have possessed the charisma, and the creativity, to become a cultural icon. This is not to say that Val Kilmer is charmless in the role — indeed, he is exceptionally compelling — merely that the obnoxious qualities Morrison displays here are so prominent they cancel out his attributes.

The movie holds fascination despite these cavils. No one’s pictures look the way Stone’s do, or are put together remotely as he assembles them. The Doors has an appropriately trippy quality, and not only in the drug sequences. Stone emphasizes Morrison’s death obsessions literally, to the point of having both the spirit of an elderly Native shaman (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) and Richard Rutowski as Death stalking Kilmer at periodic points, such as when Rutowski dances more than suggestively behind Morrison during an orgiastic concert appearance; Stone said he wanted to convey the image of Death “fucking him in the ass,” which is curious considering how the picture shies away from any suggestion of Morrison’s alleged bisexuality — a claim his bandmates also, of course, vociferously deny.

But then, as everyone surely knows by now, rock music, unlike every other performing category on earth, is comprised wholly and entirely of heterosexuals.



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Any Given Sunday
 (1999) I’ve always thought televised football was at once stupid, loud, overlong and boring. Amazingly, it took the considerable and combined talents of John Logan and Oliver Stone to deliver an equally stupid, loud, overlong and boring movie about the game. There are two central stories, involving, primarily, a Miami franchise head coach (Al Pacino) and his struggle to hold onto his job and, secondarily, concentrating on a rising young star quarterback (Jamie Foxx) who first becomes an arrogant show-off and then must learn to be a humble team-player by the play-out. There are also sub-plots involving an aging team captain (Dennis Quaid) nursing a potentially debilitating injury and the team’s embattled owner and general manager (Cameron Diaz), and the characters include a duplicitous team physician (James Woods), a veteran linebacker with a cortisone addiction (Lawrence Taylor) and an egomaniacal sports reporter (the odious John C. McGinley, doing his usual overbaked caricature). Shall I go on? If all you want is two and a half hours of scabrous people and their petty problems and rivalries, or have always hoped to see a detached human eyeball in bloody close-up, Any Given Sunday is for you.


Wall Street - Sheen

Wall Street (1987) Although supposedly made in tribute to his stockbroker father, Stone’s movie is really a disgusted response to the bald, grasping greed of the Reagan era. And while Michael Douglas is perhaps my least favorite actor of his generation, I must admit he has a feel — come by naturally, one presumes — for embodying sleaziness. I am if anything less enamored still of Charlie Sheen, Martin’s less gifted son, but even he is in good form here, as Bud Fox, an ambitious young trader who willingly allows himself to become corrupt. (Is it coincidental that he shares the first name of Jack Lemmon’s equally climbing would-be junior executive in The Apartment?) Martin Sheen himself provides splendid contrast as Bud’s honest dad, Hal Holbrook has some nice moments as a seasoned broker, James Karen is solid as Bud’s predictably mercurial boss, and Terence Stamp does well by an icy corporate raider. Only Darryl Hanna proves a true embarrassment; in her big break-up scene with the younger Sheen, she’s appalling. Whatever his limitations as an actor, he’s trying to do honor to the moment, but she gives him nothing to play against. Stone, who wrote the screenplay with Stanley Weiser, has a fine feeling for the trappings and appurtenances of the time and place, although when the picture ends you may find yourself shrugging with indifference at the whole thing.


Alexander - Bagoas
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut (2004/2013) I missed Stone’s epic study of Alexander the Great when it was released in 2004, but I certainly remember the rank homophobia that attended it, from audiences, critics and entertainment reporters. The sexuality of Alexander the Great has been a matter of controversy for centuries, but one would like to have believed that by the beginning of the 21st, some reasonableness on the subject might obtain. Instead the movie was derided, with schoolboy snickers, as Alexander the Gay. Even if one ignores his intense relationship with Hephaistion, or chooses to assume that he was chaste with his young eunuch courtier Bagoas, that Alexander married late, and left no heir, is surely indicative of something.

My own readings on Alexander have been limited to Mary Renault’s glorious fictions, particularly her splendid The Persian Boy, told from the perspective of Bagoas. Stone and his co-scenarists, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, based their screenplay largely on the historian Robin Lane Fox’s book on Alexander, but Renault was an inspiration as well, largely I would assume via Fire from Heaven, her novel of his formative years. (A third, Funeral Games, describes the events immediately following his death, likely by murder.) The scenarists frame their narrative around the reminiscences of the aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and limn the forces that shaped Alexander, from early childhood to the end. Of necessity, Stone and his co-authors omit much, including the burning of Persepolis, the particulars of which are still uncertain. And, rather surprisingly for Stone, there is no voice in the picture, however small, critical of Alexander for his voracious need of conquest. Rather, the filmmaker is besotted with the warrior king’s creative attempts to unify the vanquished and respect their cultures. That is not to say that this is not in itself admirable — and unusual, in any age. Merely that, whatever his virtues, Alexander was an insatiable imperialist, taking by force land that did not belong to him and, however benignly, enslaving the people who lived on it.

That said, the picture is superbly mounted, with the sort of breathtaking sweep only a master could achieve, and a cast of fascinating characters, chief among them of course Colin Farrell’s at once fierce yet essentially gentle Alexander. In his dyed-blond beauty, he is, appropriately both to the subject and to Stone’s conception, a deeply romantic figure. (There is, indeed, a rather gratuitous, if admittedly attractive, shot of him, naked and filmed from behind as he rises from a bed, that fully reveals not merely Farrell’s shapely backside but his genitalia and which would not be out of place in a pornographic video.) Val Kilmer is a likewise full-bodied Philip, lusty to a fault — his rape of an underling leads directly to his assassination — and, despite his crudeness and bluster, an essential guide to his son. Christopher Plummer has a nice scene as Aristotle; Jared Leto is a fine Hephaistion, wearing his love for Alexander both lightly and with palpable hurt at no longer sharing his erstwhile adolescent lover’s bed; and Francisco Bosch makes a lovely Bagoas, although obviously older than his historical precedent. The movie’s finest performance, however, is that of Angela Jolie as Alexander’s mother Olympias. Passionate and scheming, and as ruthless as her husband, Jolie’s Olympias makes abundantly clear why Alexander kept her at arm’s length. Rosario Dawson makes a memorable Roxane, animalistic and raging with jealousy. When naked on her wedding night, however, her bared breasts are revealed as pendulous and unappealing, although I am well aware than many heterosexual men consider them “hot.” That sex-scene contrasts strikingly with the one, later, between Alexander and Bagoas; where with Roxane he is aggressive, indeed even brutal, matching her bestial nature, with Bagoas he is tender and loving. One suspects that, while making love to another young man is natural, he must stir himself artificially to have sexual relations a woman… and that he understands his bride all too well.

Stone’s theatrical edit ran 175 minutes; a subsequent “Director’s Cut” for DVD was 167; the home video labeled “The Final Unrated Cut” ran 214; and Stone’s 2013 “Ultimate Cut” 206. In this edition the filmmaker took out much of what he had placed in the third version, feeling he had added in too much. At any length, this is a picture that isn’t going to satisfy many: The Leonard Maltin movie guide describes it as the first of Stone’s movies that can be called “boring.” Taste is a personal matter, of course — de gustibus non est disputandum, and all that jazz — but the sort of mind that could find Stone’s lavish, violent, engrossing examination of Alexander and his world “boring” is not one with which I would care to spend much time.


W Josh Brolin gwb080901_560

W (2008) Stone was, ludicrously, slanged in 2008 for not making George W. Bush more of a caricature, and for sympathizing with his central character. That succumbing to the former is the sign of a hack or a satirist (all too often the same thing) and that embrace of the latter is the primary job of a dramatist does not seem to have occurred to the partisans among Stone’s critics. To take on the first accusation: How much more may an artist caricaturize a man who is already a walking self-parody? Stone’s Bush, as written by the scenarist Stanley Weiser and enacted by the redoubtable Josh Brolin is, it seems to me, George W. to the life: Belligerent, untutored, ill-informed, appallingly ignorant — narcissistic in the proscribed macho manner of the Texas playboy who has seldom, if ever, heard the word “no” and been forced to comply with it.

To address the second allegation: Although Bush as a man is not as complex as the 37th President of the United States, nor as essentially and tragically bifurcated, this indictment was also leveled at Stone in 1995 when Nixon premiered, and was no more legitimate then. Again, only a parodist or a creative hack reduces his subject to abject villainy. Was Shakespeare traduced for locating the humanity in both Caesar and Brutus? Do we not in part respond to Citizen Kane precisely because Orson Welles offered him in more than a single dimension? And while is not as ultimately plangent, or as moving, as Nixon, it is certainly nothing to whinge or sneer at. It encapsulates and anatomizes its subject in sharp and often very amusing vignettes that hint strongly at the central emptiness within its eponymous subject. Is that, somehow, the same as bestowing laurels on him?

The only area in which I think Stone errs is in his and Weisner’s conception of George H.W., and in their casting of James Cromwell, who neither looks nor sounds like the elder Bush. If any member of the dynasty depicted here deserves vilification, surely it is Bush Senior, that unrepentant liar, conscienceless CIA operative (who claimed, like Nixon, not to remember where he was on the day Kennedy was murdered) and un-indicted war criminal. Ellen Burstyn comes off much better as Barbara Bush, but then, the woman herself scarcely seemed to deserve the unholy brood she gave birth to. Richard Dreyfuss makes an appropriately serpentine Dick Cheney, alternately sneering and bullying. (Although he and Stone apparently differed on the characterization.) The always splendid Scott Glenn gives a good account of Donald Rumsfeld, Toby Jones provides a correspondingly fine embodiment of the Pecksniffian Karl Rove, and Stacey Keach is fascinatingly ambiguous in a role that was conceived as a composite of several of Bush’s spiritual advisors… whose collective failure with their charge is all too obvious and instructive.


Wall Street - Money Never Sleeps with Stone

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) Interestingly, this sequel to the 1987 Wall Street is richer and more entertaining than its predecessor, at least until the wholly unnecessary — and utterly unbelievable — climax. The last-minute deus ex machina conversion of the merrily amoral Gordon Gekko rends the fabric of his character: Although he’s appalling, his actions have a unity that renders him whole; turning him into a penitent fairy godfather smacks either of studio interference, or a last-minute cowardice on someone’s part. Because we’re unsure of him through most of the picture, Michael Douglas becomes mesmerizing. And when, near the end, he reveals himself as wholly unchanged, the effect is both delicious and sick-making. It makes that sudden reversal a betrayal of the character, and of our apprehension of him. Shia LaBeouf is a more benign version of the Charlie Sheen character in the first movie (Sheen himself makes a cameo), although I think overall he’s a rather limited actor. Josh Brolin has a good role as LeBeouf’s nemesis, Carey Mulligan is permitted a wide range of emotional response as Gekko’s estranged daughter, Susan Sarandon has a few juicy scenes as LeBeouf’s mother, and Eli Wallach is as usual a deft delight as a high-rolling old financier. Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff wrote the mostly (until that unfortunate climax) intelligent screenplay, Rodrigo Prieto provides some lovely cinematography, and Stone directs not as if he’s taken on an obligation but as though the subject is fresher with him now than it was 23 years earlier, proving that Thomas Wolfe’s famous dictum concerning staging a return is not a universal truth.


Snowden

Snowden (2016) One of the least seen of Stone’s important pictures, Snowden sits on the shelf with the writer-director’s explorations of American governmental power (JFK, Nixon, W.) and, like Nixon, is both intelligently written and surprisingly moving. Perhaps audiences in 2016 already thought they knew the Snowden story; if they were consuming the Western corporate media’s coverage of his announcement, they didn’t, and don’t. Stone and his co-scenarist, Kieran Fitzgerald, depict Edward Snowden as an exceptionally bright young man of conventional conservative bent, “patriotic” in the way of so many American youths who have incorporated the deliberate inculcation of their public schools, a passive press and all-too active governmental indoctrination into their view of the world. His gradual awakening to the means by which — and the lengths to which — his employers are able, and willing, to go to infiltrate every aspect of his fellow Americans’ lives, and his determination to expose both, form the core of the narrative. (The screenplay was based in part on The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. That Harding has since allowed the Clinton machine’s absurd claims of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election to unhinge him completely should, one supposes, not mitigate his former good work.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as the eponymous anti-hero, and however much one might deplore the reactive manner of Snowden’s thinking, Gordon-Levitt’s performance conveys the young man’s basic decency and kindness as well as his slow awakening in wholly explicable terms. It was the role many of us who have admired this gifted young actor since his sitcom years were waiting for, and it’s a genuine pity that so few have seen it, and that he received no major award nominations for it. Shailene Woodley is equally fine as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, as are the superb Melissa Leo as the documentarian Laura Poitras and Zachary Quinto as the irreplaceable (and un-repressible) Glenn Greenwald. Nicolas Cage plays a character suggested by the estimable former National Security analyst — and fellow whistle-blower — Bill Binney, and Snowden himself appears briefly at the end of the picture. Craig Armstrong’s musical score is a strong asset, as is Anthony Dod Mantle’s rich cinematography and the kinetic editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy.

The ultimate willingness of one so young to leave behind his life, love and family in the furtherance of an ideal becomes quietly devastating, and for this, Stone is to be commended. Yet it is a measure of the contempt in which Oliver Stone is held by the government stenographers who now comprise the ranks of corporate journalism that a movie as vital and important as Snowden received far less press than a lumbering exercise like Any Given Sunday. And it is equally illustrative of where the American movie audience is now that Sunday was a hit domestically, Snowden a flop.


untold history - showtime
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States (2012) A staggeringly effective multipart examination of the dark underbelly of our history no American public school educator will touch: This one-time Republic’s century-plus evolution into the world’s most avaricious, and murderously dangerous, empire. Reactionaries, conservatives, liberals and their corporatist ilk will, if they sample it, no doubt sputter with impotent fury. And even for those of us who’ve been paying attention these last few decades, the revelations on display here will astonish and enrage. Yet even after 12 exhaustively documented hours* (and which feel more like two) neither Stone nor his co-authors Peter Kuznick and Matt Graham succumbs entirely to despair, and their Untold History is, finally, an impassioned call to arms that refuses to admit the defeat of essential values… provided we want them badly enough to fight for their reinstatement. “The record of the American Empire is not a pretty one,” they write. “But it is one that must be faced honestly and forthrightly if the United States is ever to undertake the fundamental structural reforms that will allow it to play a leading role in advancing rather than retarding the progress of humanity.” The Untold History is a vital step in facing that record. Now: Is there the popular will to make the changes we need?


jfk - donald sutherland
JFK: The Director’s Cut (1991/1997) Love it or despair of it, Stone’s incendiary examination of the Kennedy assassination was one of the most important movies of its time, its popularity leading directly to the establishment of the Assassination Records Review Board. That the Board has not, as directed by law, made public “all existing assassination-related documents,” that CIA has not permitted the release of the most incriminating information, and that we are still awaiting some confirmation of the essential facts, is hardly Stone’s fault. To expect more would, one suspects, be tantamount to believing in Santa Claus, or in the non-existence of an American Empire.

Based primarily on On the Trail of the Assassins, Jim Garrison’s memoir of prosecuting what is to date (and a half-century ago) the single case brought against any of the conspirators and on Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, Stone and Zachary Sklar fashioned a fiercely cinematic examination of the assassination and its largely transparent official cover-up that so enraged the Establishment it was attacked while it was being shotTime magazine even published a critique on an early script, making blatantly false claims about its content. That more than slightly hysterical response only intensified when the picture opened big; its success must have truly unnerved CIA and its plants in the American press. Pat Dowell, the film critic for The Washingtonian, found a mere 34-word capsule review killed for being, however brief, positive, and even The Advocate piled on; I am ashamed to admit their screaming headline (“JFK: Pinko Fags Offed the Prez!”) kept me from the theatres in 1991… and from Stone’s work generally, for years.

Well, it was my loss. And I should have realized, once nearly every mainstream media outlet in America inveigled against the movie, that Stone was touching a very raw nerve. He and Sklar were criticized even by dedicated assassination researchers like Mark Lane, who did not seem to understand that a feature is not a documentary. And while it is true that they conflated some characters, made composites of several participants (the racist male prostitute played by Kevin Bacon, for example, is based on a number of real figures)†, speculated — as all assassination journalists, given no official confirmation, must — and (horrors!) invented dialogue, that is what filmmakers do. One can reasonably nit-pick over a scene such as the one in which the terrified David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) says more than one imagines he would to Garrison’s team, but to dismiss the picture entirely because a dramatist dramatized is to admit you know nothing about movies, and understand less. But Stone’s critics make up their own rules where he is concerned… that is, when they don’t ignore his pictures entirely.

There are scenes in JFK that are among his finest work: The long sequence with “X” (Donald Sutherland), the former operative based on L. Fletcher Prouty and John Newman, is, in its melding of dialogue and music (by John Williams) and its gripping juxtaposition of images, the work of an absolute master. One can reasonably quarrel with Kevin Costner as Garrison, an imposition, one assumes, by Warner Bros. as box-office insurance. It’s a role rather beyond not merely his limited abilities but his physiognomy and vocal timbre; Garrison sounded more like Gregory Peck than anyone else and was of comparable and imposing physical stature. Costner isn’t bad by any means, merely conventional. He gets exceptional support, moreover, from the large cast, which includes Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sissy Spacek as Liz Garrison, Edward Asner as Guy Banister, Brian Doyle-Murray as Jack Ruby, John Candy as Dean Andrews, Jr. and Jack Lemmon as Jack Martin. Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight and Jay O. Sanders play members of Garrison’s legal team, John Larroquette shows up as a lightly disguised version of Johnny Carson, and Garrison himself appears, briefly, as Earl Warren. Robert Richardson was the cinematographer, and the kinetic editing was the work of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. JFK is most effectively enjoyed in its 206-minute “Director’s Cut.” Appropriately, the most disturbing moments in the picture stem from Stone’s use of the Zapruder footage which, however altered by the CIA, is still horrific after 55 years. As Richard Belzer is fond of reminding people, whatever one’s feelings about John F. Kennedy, or how and why and by whom he was killed, a man died that day in Dallas — horribly.


nixon richard-helms
Nixon (1995) Criminally ignored on its release — when not slammed outright, by the same chorus of professional neoliberals and CIA plants who reflexively ganged up to “discredit” JFK in 1991 — this Oliver Stone picture, written by Stone with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, is less a conventional “biopic” than an epic meditation on post-war American political realities, using as its anchor that most Shakespearean of Presidents. (Much of the idiot criticism the movie engendered centered on Stone’s audacious depiction of Richard M. Nixon as a multi-faceted human being… the first obligation of the dramatist.) It’s a film that looks better with each viewing, particularly in Strone’s home-video “Director’s Cut,” which among other things restored what to me seems its most absolutely essential sequence, between Anthony Hopkins’ RMN and a silkily foreboding Sam Waterston as the CIA Director Richard Helms — the single segment of the picture that most directly addresses Stone’s central thesis: That the President, whoever he (or in future, she) might be, is a temporary employee of a National Security State so overweening, and so powerful, it is a beast with its own sinister momentum, over which the Commander in Chief has no recourse, control, defense, or power. I initially sensed in its excision from the 1995 theatrical release the fine Italian hand of the Walt Disney Company; Elaine May once observed that “They” always know what your movie is about — the very reason you wanted to make it — because it’s what they make you cut first. I have since heard Stone admit that he cut the Helms sequence from Nixon on his own volition and not, as I assumed, due to studio interference. I respectfully submit that he was wrong; that single scene is what Stone’s Nixon is really all about.


* Ten, if you don’t watch Stone’s two Prologues detailing the last years of the 19th century and the earlier years of the 20th — and you should; they provide the necessary context to what follows. There is also on the Blu-Ray set a splendid, long colloquy between Stone and Tariq Ali that is not to be missed.

†One of them, Perry Russo — who was not a hustler — was Garrison’s star witness. Interestingly, Russo appears nowhere in JFK.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

See also:
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/the-impossibility-of-reason-platoon-1986/

Sitting under the gallows: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

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By Scott Ross

Late in John Huston’s just about perfect adaptation of The Maltese Falcon Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade tells his unreliable paramour Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) that they have to get their stories straight for the police who will arrive within minutes. In Spade’s memorable phrase, “We’re both of us sitting under the gallows!” Huston in his memoirs maintains that he saw no particular continuity of style in his work — an unconscious echo of Andrew Sarris’ typically rash condemnation of him — and while this may be true on a purely technical level, yet Huston had a theme peculiar to him and to which he returned again and again in the screenplays he adapted from the novels of others: What I think of as group excursions toward failure. In picture after picture Huston’s characters are sitting under the gallows… and, one way or another, they usually hang.

Sometimes the “group” is two people (Prizzi’s Honor) and occasionally the failure falls on a solitary figure only (Moulin Rouge, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Under the Volcano, Wise Blood, The Dead). But in nearly every movie John Huston directed, whether he wrote (or co-authored) the screenplay, and whether the tone is dramatic, comic, serio-comic or satirical, his protagonists do not succeed. It is a motif as obvious, and as pervasive, as those of disguise and deception in Billy Wilder’s movies, or loneliness and loss of innocence in Orson Welles’. Only when the movie is a romantic adventure (The African Queen and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a “biopic” (Freud), an adaptation of a play (Key Largo, The Night of the Iguana) or a fantasy of one sort or another (Victory, Annie) do the central characters succeed… and even then, their triumph is usually muted and may even seem like punishment. Does Richard Burton’s Reverend Shannon look overjoyed at the end of Iguana when he says he may have some trouble “getting back up the hill” and Ava Gardner’s Maxine ripostes, “I’ll get you back up, baby. I’ll always get you back up”? Huston famously argued with Tennessee Williams over Maxine during the shooting of the picture; the playwright saw her as a spider, and she is. Shannon is her fly, and he knows it. But then, the director regarded Williams’ attitude as a misogynist/homosexual response to an earthy, sensual heterosexual woman. That Williams was forever wedded to the many sympathetic portraits of women in his work (including, along with the neurotic, some notably erotic ones) and that Huston’s own misogyny is legend, puts paid to the argument between them.*

Maltese Falcon - Huston and his stars

Huston and his principal Falcon cast: Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart, all in character.

While one would have to be a trained psychologist perhaps to comprehend what in Huston’s weird mind drew him to his principal theme, or identified it as important — perhaps, as with his colleague and friend Orson Welles it was disappointment at finding himself a mediocre painter — one has only to think of the prospectors of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; the criminals in The Asphalt Jungle (co-written with Ben Maddow); the adventurers and criminals in Beat the Devil (Huston with Truman Capote); the mariners of Moby-Dick (Huston with Ray Bradbury); The Misfits (Arthur Miller); the spies of The Kremlin Letter; and the hopeful imperialist duo in The Man Who Would Be King (both by Huston with his associate Gladys Hill), to see the pattern.

So it is entirely in character that John Huston should end the screenwriting phase of his career with High Sierra, whose doomed ex-con Roy “Mad Dog” Earle both enhanced Humphrey Bogart’s profile and set the downbeat standard for Huston’s more mature work as a writer-director (and, later, director of others’ scripts.) His major weakness, as Lawrence Grobel pointed out in his mutli-generational biography The Hustons,† was his predilection for second-rate literature — for W.R. Burnett and Rudyard Kipling as opposed to, say, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder (although he got to Wilder just before he died). Of course it can be argued, and indeed I have done so elsewhere, that the greatest prose resists transmigration to another medium, which can only reduce it to the bare outlines of dialogue and plot, whereas a canny adapter can make art out of the third- and even fourth-rate; ergo, while Huston foundered on Malcolm Lowry and Flannery O’Connor he soared with C.S. Forester and Noel Behn. Indeed, only twice, with the very fine but studio-mutilated The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) and the sublime The Dead (James Joyce) did John Huston do full honor to a great work he admired. (As his final completed work, The Dead did honor to him as well.)


The Maltsese Falcon had already been filmed, twice at Warner Bros.’, first under its own title in 1931 (it was reissued later as Dangerous Female) and then in 1936 as a comedy-mystery starring Warren William and Bette Davis (Satan Met a Lady). Huston, and Henry Blanke, his producer, felt that the studio had not gotten the book’s values on the screen, and the directing tyro was on the right track when he asked his secretary to re-type the novel in standard script form: It’s a book of dialogue as much as of plot, and damn good dialogue at that. Except for Sam Spade’s paraphrase of Shakespeare at the end, nearly every line spoken in Huston’s movie comes directly from Hammett, or is a slight variation. His deviations are largely for the sake of telescoping, although rather less explicably he omits the sequence in which Spade tosses Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s flat. She assumes it was either Joel Cairo or the young gun-thug Wilmer, and without that scene we make the same assumption. It may be that Huston couldn’t find a way around Hammett’s frame (Spade slipping out while O’Shaughnessy sleeps in his bed) that would satisfy the censors. He had also, perforce, to delete the moment in which Spade forces Brigid, whom he suspects of palming a thousand-dollar bill, to submit to a strip-search. Perhaps such sops to conventional morality were a ruse, or acted as one, because what the screenwriter did get past the Production Code is jaw-dropping. Take, for instance, the moment in the novel in which Spade and Brigid first become intimate. Hammett’s Brigid wonders explicitly if she can buy the detective off with her body; Huston’s Brigid asks, anent Spade’s mention of money, “What else is there I can buy you with?” and his Spade instantly kisses her, roughly, stroking her cheekbones with his thumbs, not caressingly but as if he’d like to raise them just a bit and use them to gouge out her eyes.

Maltese Falcon - Lorre with cane

Sometimes a walking-stick is just a walking-stick: Lorre as Joel Cairo.

Even more astounding, however, is that Huston served up a cinematic mystery in which the genteel culprits are comprised almost entirely of homosexual men, and one rather promiscuous dame who’s a pathological liar. And if Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo is less flagrantly gay than as described by Hammett — in the book he’s depicted as a mincing, thin-armed, heavy-bottomed fairy — he is nevertheless introduced by a gardenia-scented calling card (lavender in the novel) and, as he talks to Spade, sucks briefly at the tip of the decidedly phallic handle of his walking-stick. If that wasn’t eye-popping enough, Huston retains just enough of the dialogue in which Cairo and O’Shaughnessy snipe at each other over a boy in Istanbul she couldn’t make and he did that when she lunges at him, you know precisely why. Cairo’s sexuality is also on display later when, after he and The Fat Man (Sidney Greenstreet) have sold the gunsel Wilmer out and Spade has cold-cocked him, Lorre hovers over Elisha Cook, Jr. like a mother hen. The movie’s Kasper Gutman, like Hammett’s, is more ambiguous — the more so for Huston’s omitting Gutman’s duplicitous young daughter, who pretends being drugged to waylay Sam in his search for Brigid — but it’s hard to miss the implication that Wilmer is not merely the man’s bodyguard but his kept boy, particularly in Gutman’s, “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son.” And where Hammett invokes the term “gunsel” a single time only, Huston uses it repeatedly; the movie’s Spade rarely calls Wilmer anything else.

And here we pause for a lesson which seems increasingly necessary… and is seldom, if ever, heeded. I’ve tried myself, more than once, but here goes: Chiefly I think because of this movie, the word “gunsel” (Yiddish, literally “gosling”) has come to mean a cheap hood when it was used in Hammett’s time exclusively in reference to the passive young partner in homosexual union with an older man: A bottom. That’s the reason Bogart’s Spade uses the word so often in his needling of Wilmer, and why the boy gets so angry when he does. Huston’s very knowing employment of the epithet for a gun-toting kid has, unfortunately, given rise to know-nothings casually tossing it off to indicate a gunman of any kind. Thus we get such howlers as Dennis Lehane, in his otherwise excellent crime novel Live by Night, evoking the unintentionally hilarious image of “an army of gunsels.” Not exactly the Spartan 300. Well, Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon is both a gunsel and a cheap hood.

Huston may not have been able to let Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick) refer to Cairo as “queer”; permit his Spade to sneer, when Wilmer reacts against Cairo’s physical solicitude, “Lovers’ quarrel”; or do more than indirectly imply the situations, but as in the book there is clearly something going on between Wilmer and Joel in the movie, and the imposed ambiguity is an asset. Huston also upped the ante when Spade twits the police lieutenant, Dundy, repeatedly referring to him as Detective Polhaus’ “boyfriend” or “playmate.” I like to think that it tickled Huston to throw so much “sex perversion” at the Breen Office in one movie, and for that largely Catholic censorship organization to miss it all.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart and Cook

Gunsel and cheap hood: Sam Spade confronts Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) in the lobby of Cairo’s hotel.

Of greater impact in The Maltese Falcon than these matters is the visual style of the picture, one of the progenitors of what post-war French critics deemed film noir (literally, “dark film”) and which was and remains so misunderstood. The shadowed look was, usually, of necessity on below-B movie budgets. That the chiaroscuro effects aided the storytelling was something of a happy accident, but low-key lighting was most often used to camouflage cheap sets with modest light sources. Even Orson Welles and Gregg Toland resorted to these tricks on Citizen Kane, not a “B” picture but one made at a cost-conscious studio with every reason to be nervous, and Kane is now, like Falcon and Double Indemnity, considered by many as one of the de facto early noirs. (Although, again, Indemnity was an “A” project from the outset.) And while Kane had not begun its theatrical run when Falcon was shooting — it was delayed by the contretemps with Hearst — I suspect Huston had seen and admired it, as his movie debut as a director also, like Welles’ and unusually for the period, favors visible ceilings and close, low angles.

Huston’s San Francisco is a city not merely of fog but of night. Only two, brief, outdoor sequences occur during daylight hours, and even the short scene (the murder of Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s business partner) imposed on the picture by nervous executives for the benefit of patrons who can’t piece something together even when it’s discussed in detail, while directed by someone other than Huston, takes place on a fog-bound, deserted street in the hours just after midnight. The Maltese Falcon is a movie of dark rooms with drawn shades (only Spade’s apartment has diaphanous curtains, and, perhaps significantly, his windows are almost always open.) Huston’s cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, a master of light who also shot the Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad, All Quiet on the Western Front, Mutiny on the Bounty and three James Whale projects (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man). He also, coincidentally, lit Satan Met a Lady, and a year after Falcon he would produce the sumptuous photography for Bogart’s vehicle to immortality, Casablanca. This was a man who understood darkness, and how to exploit it.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart in shadow

The dark night of the soul is sometimes two a.m. rather than three: Spade after learning of the death of his partner.

Speaking of Bogart brings us to the fourth reason for the picture’s lasting appeal beyond Hammett’s story, Huston’s compact screenplay and his subsequent stripped-down direction: The movie’s superb cast. Although a far cry from the green-eyed “blond Satan” of Hammett’s description, Bogart is in every other way the ideal Sam Spade — indeed, the one who defined the role forever, as he did five years later with his Philip Marlowe, and after whom (pace Howard Duff) no others need apply. “Spade has no original,” Hammett once wrote. “He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” You can take Hammett’s words about Spade and apply them equally to Bogie. Nearly every man in the 1940s wanted to be him, or to at least possess his self-assurance.

And Sam Spade was the role Bogart had been waiting for. After years of supporting parts, thankless inanities and almost-leads he’d burnished his reputation considerably playing “Mad Dog” Earle for Raoul Walsh (and scenarist John Huston) and Spade was, for the actor, a definite step up: This time he wasn’t a criminal, and although emotionally wounded, he at least didn’t die in the end. Bogart won the role after George Raft, who was possibly Hollywood’s least precise chooser of roles, passed, largely because Huston was, as director, an unknown quantity. Raft made a habit of turning down parts that paved the way for others, especially Bogart: The gangster “Baby Face” Martin in Dead End, Roy Earle, Spade, “Gloves” Donahue in All Through the Night and, allegedly, Rick Blaine in Casablanca, the part that cemented Bogart’s stature as not only a bankable star but a desirable, even sexy, leading man.‡ Spade calls forth from Bogart a unique set of attitudes. He is, on the one hand, a detached observer and, on the other, and in his own fashion, passionate about justice. A pitiless cad (he’s carrying on an affair with his partner’s wife, and, throughout the picture, treats her with barely disguised contempt) yet despite Brigid’s… I believe the polite phrase would be “unreliable veracity”… he’s genuinely shattered at the end by his own decision to surrender her to the police. He seems to be every bit as avaricious as the casually murderous gang he’s drawn into assisting — note the manic gleam in his eye when he unwraps the falcon, and the dark glee with which he exclaims to Lee Patrick as his secretary Effie, “We’ve got it, Angel! We’ve got it!” — but remaining on the level is ultimately of more interest to him than treasure-hunting. Nor does Bogart tip his hand; we’re unsure until the finish just how far he’ll go.

There’s also remarkable equanimity in Bogart’s performance; although he needles Wilmer mercilessly (and not without reason) he’s more amused by than contemptuous of Cairo when the perfumed dandy holds him up a second time, and his startled laughter at the little man’s audacity feels absolutely real. The same holds true when, exasperated by the Fat Man’s intransigence, he smashes his drinking glass and gives the old chiseler what for; the rage is incandescent, yet when he exits Gutman’s suite he’s grinning at his own performance, even unto the hand he suddenly notices is shaking in the aftermath of his outburst. And when at the climax he explains to Brigid why he’s sacrificing her, he looks absolutely poleaxed by the whole thing. That haunted gaze of his, staring at nothing as he tries to make Brigid understand what she cannot begin to comprehend, marks Spade’s emotional wounding as surely as the faraway look in his eyes when, after Polhaus (Ward Bond) asks him what the black bird is he replies, “The, uh… stuff that dreams are made of.” It’s a dream he’s trying to shake, and we sense there will indeed be as he suggests to Brigid “some rotten nights,” and a lot more of them than he lets on.

That is, I think, one hell of a performance.

Maltese Falcon - Bogart and Astor

“We’re both of us sitting under the gallows.”

The casting of Mary Astor as Brigid is truly inspired. In the Hammett novel, she is, altogether improbably, a girl in her early 20s. With the more mature but no less alluring Astor in the role, the character’s lies and evasions take on both greater believability and a peculiar resonance: Brigid becomes a woman with a past, and a sense of desperation that goes beyond her fear of violent death.§ It’s a tribute to Astor’s fulsome performance that we are never quite certain, even after repeated viewings, where the lies end and the truth begins; when she breaks down at the climax, is her reaction wholly to the certainty of life behind bars, or even hanging, or does she perhaps actually love Sam Spade, at least a little? He can’t tell, and neither can we. The final shot of her, behind elevator door bars that creepily evoke the cell waiting for her at Tehachapi, is as devastating as Astor’s shell-shocked gaze.

As Cairo, Peter Lorre beautifully illustrates why in Berlin he was considered one of the finest young stage actors of his generation. The baby-fat he’d exhibited as the child-murderer in M was long gone by 1941 (although, at least in part due to morphine addiction, his heaviness would return) and the leanness of his face becomes Cairo as much as the curled hair that suggests the Levantine of Hammett’s novel. And despite the clear implications of a homosexual persona, there is nothing prissy or effeminate about Lorre’s performance, merely a weary sophistication alternating with an excitability that just verges at times on hysteria. Although Cairo is amoral, we somehow don’t dislike him, as it is nearly impossible to dislike Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, no matter how threatening he may seem. His avuncular jocularity somehow skirts being tiresome — an improvement over the novel, in which the character is both repetitious and, ultimately, exhausting — and the figure becomes at once unknowably malign and irresistible. He is not, incidentally, called “The Fat Man” in the novel. That moniker was one of Huston’s most apposite additions.

Maltese Falcon - Greenstreet, Lorre and Bogart

The supporting roles are no less impressively cast. Lee Patrick does wonder-work with Effie Perine, showing none of the masochistic hurt of the character in the novel that makes her seeming to push Brigid on Spade so perverse. Gladys George’s Iva Archer is nicely judged, as is Ward Bond’s ambivalent Detective Polhaus, and Barton MacLane gets the right measure of surliness in Lieutenant Dundy, soured by the prospect of Spade’s not being a killer. (Walter Huston also shows up, unbilled, as a walking corpse, a role he undertook to give his son some needed confidence on the first day of filming.)

Although Elisha Cook Jr.’s Wilmer is not the pretty boy of the novel, the actor clearly read the book; when attempting to shadow Spade on the street he keeps his eyes shaded by his lashes just as Hammett describes the character. Cook also has an effective scene in Spade’s apartment when, knowing he’s being sold out, he threatens the private detective through barely controlled tears. He understand at that moment that he is indeed only a boy, not the hardened thug he pretends to be, and that the ease with which he’s murdered at least one man in imitation, one presumes, of the gangsters he’s seen at the movies has finally caught up with him.

The Maltese Falcon is one of those rare movies one can see again and again with complete happiness, ever succumbing to its mesmeric blandishments, always finding something new. I initially saw it, at a library screening, when I was perhaps 11 or 12 (it was my first Bogart picture), have watched it repeatedly in the years since — including twice recently in preparation for writing this — and know that I will revisit it many times in the future. It would be a masterpiece of its kind had it been written and directed by an old pro with a couple dozen such pictures under his belt. For a novice to have made it is almost beyond belief.

Huston’s people may be doomed, but when they’re this good, they are indeed the stuff that dreams are made of.


*Huston was comfortable enough with gay men as long as their public miens comforted his bigotry, as with Capote. It was only when confronted with a homosexual man (Montgomery Clift) whose persona eschewed the flamboyant that he couldn’t handle it.

†Along with illuminating the lives of Walter and John, Grobel takes in as well the youths and early careers of Angelica, Tony and Danny.

‡Raft also said no to Double Indemnity, to Billy Wilder’s relief. About the only good role he said yes to was that of Spats Columbo in Some Like it Hot. Would The Maltese Falcon be half the picture it is with him? Would High SierraDouble Indemnity? Care to see Raft in Bergman’s arms? His complacency was American cinema’s benison.

§In one of the essays that accompany the published screenplay (in the Rutgers Films in Print series) one Ilsa J. Bick refers to Astor, absurdly, as “matronly.” I wonder how old Bick was when she wrote that.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross