By Scott Ross
Oklahoma! (1955) [Todd-AO version / CinemaScope version] The first film adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, and the finest.
Doctor Dolittle (1967)
That Doctor Dolittle was the picture 20th Century-Fox pinned most of its hopes on in 1967 is difficult to fathom now as that same studio’s earlier devotion to the money-pit known as Cleopatra in 1962. That one nearly bankrupted them. Dolittle didn’t do as much damage but it didn’t bring much honor (let alone profits) either. I well remember the picture’s release; I was in precisely the age-group Fox was aiming it at. It was the first non-Disney movie I recall seeing so many commercial product tie-ins for — the sort of thing that we would, a decade later with George Lucas’ Star Wars merchandising, become blasé about was a big deal in ’67. There were children’s cereal tie-ins, toys, games, storybooks, paperback reprints of the Hugh Lofting originals bearing Rex Harrison’s likeness… and records. O, how they had records! The score existed as a soundtrack album, of course, but also in LPs by everyone from Anthony Newley and Sammy Davis, Jr. to Alvin and the Chipmunks. The only thing Doctor Dolittle didn’t get, surprisingly, was a Gold Key comic book. How did Arthur P. Jacobs miss that one?
I don’t think Richard Fleischer’s direction is more than merely competent, and the movie as a whole has more size than real charm. (The original Lofting books are, whatever their racial… “limitations,” shall we say?… entirely charming.) Perhaps if it had been conceived, not as a big, sprawling musical but as a smaller and more inventive non-musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle might have been a minor classic of its kind. And the presence of Harrison makes Dolittle rather too Henry Higgins-like for comfort. (Reportedly re-written that way at the star’s insistence… after he first insisted the character be as far from Higgins as possible. That’s what you get when you hire a megalomaniacal drunk as your star.) But if it hadn’t been a musical, Doctor Dolittle would have lost the one aspect that lifts it above the norm of original musical movies: The Leslie Bricusse score.
If his screenplay is less sparkling — you can sense the prints of too many fingers on it, and the pushing of a once-sided romance that never takes flight feels weirdly like an exercise in masochism — Bricusse’s songs have a nearly unerring grasp of character, time and place that, combined with their melodiousness, their feeling for mood and their gentle humor, make them almost ideal musical-comedy numbers. Sadly, three of his prettiest ballads (“Beautiful Things,” “Where Are the Words?” and “Something in Your Smile”) were either cut after the premiere or, in the case of the first, trimmed. The footage apparently no longer exists, making the otherwise lovely Twilight Time Blu-ray a bit of a disappointment. I know there are those who hate these songs (when “Talk to the Animals” won the Oscar for Best Song cries of “Oh, no!” were heard in the auditorium) but as I have often said of the Sherman Brothers’ work, if you think it’s easy to compose a clutch of engaging and melodic songs with witty lyrics that can amuse an adult and that a child can also comprehend and appreciate, you write one.
This was the era of the big “road show” musical, and the second such movie my mother took my sister and me to (the first was The Sound of Music a year or so before) that had an Intermission; a big deal for a seven-year old in 1968. Is the movie any good? It seems to me better than its reputation would suggest, but I lack perspective on it: When a picture enchanted you as a child and holds up generally on adult re-viewing, who knows? It’s entirely possible that I feel about Doctor Dolittle the way younger people do about what I regard as the meretricious garbage they grew up with; Willow comes to mind, and The Goonies, and the movies of John Hughes. Before we trash the taste and pleasures of others’ youths, we would do well to examine our own.
The movie adaptation by James Goldman of his 1966 play, one of those rare pictures whose wit, and spectacular performances, make it a pleasure no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
Julius Caesar (1953)
This moderately engaging Shakespeare adaptation benefits almost entirely from its actors, and from its typically expert Miklós Rózsa score. Certainly Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s direction is merely workmanlike, when it isn’t altogether poor, and its special effects would be inadequate in a high school production. (The storm sequence is almost hilariously bad; I pictured Tom Courtenay off-stage, frantically pounding on kettle-drums and sheet-metal.) James Mason makes a splendid Brutus, acting entirely on principal and haunted by his own deeds, and although she has one scene only, Deborah Kerr as Portia matches him, her warm voice and understated anguish the perfect compliment to his brooding. John Gielgud, long absent from the screen, made a superb return as Cassius, that mellifluous bassoon of a voice first seducing Brutus, then hectoring him and, finally, locating the character’s latent sense of honor. Best of all is Marlon Brando’s Anthony. Although the play is really Brutus’, to Anthony was given the great funeral oration, with which the character subtly alters the mood of the all-too-pliable mob through irony and rhetoric. (Brando creates a nice moment when, his back to the Roman crowd, he smiles briefly, knowing he has them. Mussolini would surely have approved.) Brando went to Gielgud for advice on diction and phrasing, but the approach is unmistakably his own. He makes each phrase sound natural, as if it just occurred to him. He’s not imitating Gielgud; he’s not imitating anyone.
On the far side of these splendid players is the gaseous Grande Dame posturings of the appalling Greer Garson. Her acting epitomizes what used to be meant by publicists and newspaper writers when they trotted out the word “distinguished.”
Demon Seed (1977)
An effective, although not exceptional, adaptation of Dean Knnotz’s creepy, truly disturbing cyber-horror novel, arguably more relevant now than it was in 1977. Fritz Weaver is an A.I. expert who has created a living computer, and Julie Christie is his estranged wife, who becomes its first victim. The picture suffers from its modest budget and the limitations of the 1970s special effects (about to be rendered altogether redundant by George Lucas) and from a lack of interior logic in its Robert Jaffe/Roger O. Hirson screenplay: When Gerrit Graham as one of Weaver’s employees goes to check on Christie and is murdered by “Proteus IV,” his disappearance is ignored by everyone for the crucial month the computer requires for Christie to carry and give birth to its progeny. Donald Cammell directed competently, although with very little style; but for Bill Butler’s rich cinematography, Demon Seed could almost have been a made-for-TV movie. Jerry Fielding’s musique concrète score is effective in context, although I can’t imagine wanting to listen to it in isolation, although Butler, who two years earlier shot Jaws, brings warmth to a cold story with his supple lighting and color. Almost unreservedly grim, the picture has one good in-joke: The chilly, unemotional voice of Proteus IV was provided by the equally frigid Robert Vaughn.
The Mouse on the Moon (1962)
A mildly amusing adaptation of Leonard Wibberly’s satirical novel, itself a sequel to his enormously popular The Mouse That Roared and its inevitable movie. As with the movie of that book, The Mouse on the Moon is more twee than funny, although it manages a few laughs. Margaret Rutherford is charming as the Grand Duchess, although her role is shorter than one would like, and she is, curiously, less sweetly moving than Peter Sellers was in the role! A lot of good farceurs are in this one, including Ron Moody as the corrupt Prime Minister, Bernard Cribbins as his earnest son, Terry-Thomas as a less than efficacious English spy, the Broadway actor Tom Aldredge (husband of the costume designer Theoni V.) as a hapless Pentagon assistant and David Kossoff as the preternaturally cheerful and unhurried scientist whose discovery that the tiny Duchy’s combustible wine can be used as fuel for a space capsule sets the plot in motion. Michael Pertwee (brother of Jon) wrote the script, and Richard Lester directed in a style that is rather sedate for him — but A Hard Day’s Night was just around the corner.
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
Only a true auteur (or anyway an auteurist home video company) could seriously attach a possessive credit to The Importance of Being Earnest other than Oscar Wilde. Yes, Anthony Asquith wrote the adaptation and directed it, but I suspect he would be appalled at being named, as Criterion does, the “creator” of this movie. Thus does the viral insanity of Andrew Sarris infect everything.
Wilde’s “Serious Comedy for Trivial People” is one of the great pleasures the English-speaking theatre affords, its torrent of polished witticisms and dizzying aperçus piling up in a manner so intoxicating that in addition to laughing, often, we sit in the theatre smiling in perfect bliss for the play’s three delirious acts. The 1952 movie is briefer than the play — it runs a fast 95 minutes — yet somehow we miss nothing. And if both Michael Redgrave (as Jack) and Michael Denison (Algernon) are a good decade older than their roles, Asquith’s framing device of a theatrical performance is superfluous and Denison’s perennial mode of expression is something between a smirk and a sneer, rendering him less impish than unpleasant, everything else is absolutely right. Asquith’s pitch and pacing are exactly correct, and his cast is nearly perfect. Redgrave, with his dashing mien and rich, plummy voice, is an ideal Jack Worthing, perfectly matched by the serene imbecility of Joan Greenwood’s Gwendolen and Dorothy Tutin’s Cecily. Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson are, as always with these two sublime comedians, oases of hilariously unflappable British reserve. And if it does nothing else, the movie preserves Edith Evans’ peerless Lady Bracknell. Her performance is so perfectly calibrated, her characterization so utterly certain of the rightness of its extreme rectitude and absurd traditions, her memory must present a formidable hurdle to any actor assaying the role. How do you make it your own when she got every line so magnificently right before you? And yes, everything you may have heard about her reading of the outraged line “A handbag?” is correct; no matter how many times I hear it, Evans’ exquisite comic phrasing always elicits from me a gale of explosive hilarity. As an added fillip, Desmond Dickinson’s rich photography, like the delicious British light music score by Benjamin Frankel, makes the thing like a colorful bonbon, as charming to look at as to digest.
John Simon always maintained that intelligent laughter was the very best sort. There are fewer pure fonts of it than this.
The superb jazz (and, lately, movie) critic Gary Giddins’ heartfelt 1988 tribute to one of his idols, and mine. Written by Giddins and co-directed by him and Kendrick Simmons, Satchmo charts the astonishing youthful rise of one of the few undisputed musical geniuses of the 20th century, illustrating just why he, more than anyone of his time, defined the parameters of the form and the place of the great solo artist within it; his sometimes troubled middle-age; and his transcendent emeritus years, when the taint of Uncle Tomism, never fair, began to fall away and Armstrong’s importance could be more broadly understood. When his great Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings from the late 1920s were reissued on LP around the time Giddins’ documentary was airing on PBS, they were a revelation: While Armstrong was hardly the first jazz performer — the genre predated his arrival in it by decades — those records made it feel as if he was inventing jazz right on the spot. Next to an astonishment like “West End Blues,” almost everything that came before was literally marking time.
Despite Hattie Winston’s passionless and undistinguished narration, Satchmo does for Armstrong, in 90 minutes, what it takes Ken Burns, in Jazz, 10 episodes to do. The live footage of Armstrong in Copenhagen in 1933 alone justifies the entire event.
Divorce American Style (1967)
Few things date faster than topical humor. Divorce American Style was old-hat two years after its release, when no-fault divorce became the law of the land in California, where the movie is set, and its then-scathing satire instantly devolved from amusingly au courant to hopelessly passé. So if you like the picture as I do and have since seeing it on television in the mid-‘70s, you have to approach it as a period-piece — even though its Norman Lear/Robert Kaufman screenplay has infinitely more bite to it than William Rose’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the script that bested it at the 1967 Oscars. This was one of Dick Van Dyke’s few non-family friendly projects of the ‘60s, and one of his best. He’s the husband impoverished by his state’s punitive divorce laws, although I would think being married to Debbie Reynolds was punishment enough. While there is some sharp dialogue and several cleverly conceived and executed sequences, usually set to Dave Grusin’s inspired faux-Baroque music (the opening titles, in which the evening’s suburban arguments are orchestrated by a conductor; the scene in which each warring spouse attempts to thwart the other’s abilities to strip their join bank holdings; the Sunday-fathers’ gathering of the clans; and a prolonged silent fight between Reynolds and Van Dyke, punctuated entirely by slamming doors and sliding cabinets) much of the humor of the picture lies in its canny casting: Jason Robards, Jr. as the tragi-comic divorcée hoping to pair his ex (Jean Simmons) with Van Dyke, to get him off the financial hook that is literally destroying his heath; Shelley Berman and Richard Gautier as overly pally divorce lawyers; Joe Flynn as an ethical philandering husband; Martin Gabel as a humorless couples’ therapist; Lee Grant as an insulted call-girl; Tom Bosley as a divorced man explaining the intricacies of weekend fatherhood to a bewildered Van Dyke; Van Johnson as a square, mother-ridden car dealer; and in smaller roles, Emmaline Henry, the “hip hypnotist” Pat Collins (as herself), Shelley Morrison, Eileen Brennan as Robards’ girlfriend (this was her first movie) and, as Van Dyke and Reynolds’ knowing sons, Gary Goetzman and Tim Matheson, the once and future Jonny Quest. Conrad L. Hall’s muted color photography and Ferris Webster’s often effective editing make this one of the rare ‘60s comedies that has more in common with the kineticism of The Graduate than with the glorified Universal television look of a Doris Day vehicle. After a second bracing Van Dyke black comedy (Cold Turkey in 1971) and the 1973 Ryan O’Neal caper The Thief Who Came to Dinner the director Bud Yorkin and his writer and co-producer Norman Lear would develop All in the Family for television and pretty much turn their backs on the movies for good. Interesting too that the fruits of their TV empire, the aptly-named Tandem Productions, which encompassed All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and Sanford and Son, should now be referred to solely as Norman Lear’s. There’s nothing like having good P.R.
The first Disney animated feature in widescreen and among the most charming of all full-length cartoons.
Hearts of the West (1975)
Hearts of the West is one of those puzzlers that occasionally crop up: A bright, funny little movie about a hapless Candide in the early days of cheap talkie Westerns with a charming script and a wonderful cast that went by the wayside when it was released and, for reasons that absolutely defy logic, bombed at the box office. What were its “must-see” competitors in the marketplace in October, 1975? Tom Laughlin in The Master Gunfighter? Diana Ross in Mahogany? The “Blaxploitation” Western Take a Hard Ride? That last is not a slur, by the way; I like Take a Hard Ride enormously. I’m simply saying that Hearts of the West had very little real competition for moviegoers’ bucks, and none remotely as good.*
Sharply and wittily written by Rob Thompson and efficiently directed by Howard Zieff, it’s a breezy, quirky fable of a Western-obsessed youth (Jeff Bridges), determined to become a novelist, who after inadvertently foiling a pair of con artists (Richard B. Shull and Anthony James) and accidentally absconding with their loot, takes refuge with the cowboys at a Poverty Row studio. Thompson, who later wrote for Northern Exposure and Monk, has a gift for the unexpected; his characters don’t always act the way we think they will, and his narratives veer off into avenues that, while perhaps puzzling at first, eventually resolve themselves as, within the gentle madness of the conception, eminently reasonable. And, unlike with Richard Rush’s far more highly lauded The Stunt Man, Thompson respects the physical realities of filmmaking. Everything about the picture works, from the soft, lovely cinematography by Mario Tosi and the sometimes hilariously accurate art direction by Robert Luthardt and set decoration by Charles B. Pierce to the cunning period costumes by Patrick Cummings and Ron Talsky. Zieff’s direction is clean and uncluttered, and he gets the most from Thompson’s script and from his actors, who aside from a typically wonderful Bridges include Alan Arkin as an excitable director, the sublime Blythe Danner as his practical assistant, and Andy Griffith as a Western gunfighter with a secret. It was the best screen role Griffith had lucked onto since the 1957 A Face in the Crowd, and you can well understand why he was still bitter about the movie’s financial failure a decade later.
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
When I first saw The Mosquito Coast on its release in 1986, I clocked more walk-outs in the audience than for any picture of my experience since Looking for Mr. Goodbar in 1977. There were any number of reasons for audience discontent in the case of the latter. As to the former, I think there were two.
First, Harrison Ford’s previous picture, a year earlier, had been Witness, a huge hit in which he played an implacable cop and which built to a big, violent finish. Here he was a mercurial obsessive who blithely endangers his family by repeatedly trying to set up a kind of half-assed Utopia in Honduras, dragging them from one untenable encampment to another, and slowly going mad. This was not what an audience expected of Han Solo, much less of Indiana Jones.
Second (and worse) “Father,” as Ford’s character is usually called, does not grow and change for the better. A mass audience can take a character as weird and arrogant as this only when it receives assurance that he will see the error of his ways. Even Oedipus putting out his eyes is more acceptable to it than watching a beloved actor descend into madness and death assaying a character who (as the asparagus farmer played by Dick O’Neill notes of him) is “the worst kind of pain-in-the neck: A know-it-all who’s sometimes right.” If you’re open to the experience, however, and to its bitter vision, The Mosquito Coast is that rare thing: An American movie that does not compromise.
Paul Schrader’s screenplay telescopes some of the narrative of the superb Paul Theroux novel (the Fox family’s miserable journey is more protracted in the book) and softens some of its nastier edges. I couldn’t understand, for example, why in Theroux the younger Fox children are so antagonistic toward Charley (River Phoenix) who is a nice, sensitive kid even if he only recognizes the full extent of his father’s endangering madness when it’s far too late — just as in the book Father’s bullying, while grounded in his determination to prepare his children for survival in a world he believes is reverting to savagery, ranges well beyond cruelty; Allie Fox is perhaps a minor-league sadist, but anyone who’s grown up with such a parent knows that even low-grade sadism is deeply wounding to the children who are its targets. As with all adaptations of fine literature, much is necessarily lost along the way, but on balance Schrader captures the tone of the book, especially in Charley’s narration, which carries over from the novel and allows the viewer, as it did the reader, some perspective on his Quixotic father.
The Mosquito Coast is one of those pictures that seems to benefit from its director not being an American. Perhaps, as an Australian, Peter Weir was able to look at Allie, and at the world he escapes from, plain. There’s a sense that the filmmakers admire Father’s vision, even as they look askance at how he achieves it. And when Allie inadvertently destroys and pollutes his manufactured Paradise, Ford gets Father’s response exactly, and staggeringly, right: Every set-back becomes a new beginning, and he claims he’s overjoyed at the prospect, utterly unable to see how each such fresh start in the face of failure is another slow death for his wife and children. I think his performance as Allie Fox is the finest Harrison Ford has ever given, and it’s garnered him scant honor. That audience indifference to artistic integrity, a collective shrug, says much about why we get the movies we do: We deserve them.
Jim Brown’s absolutely wonderful documentary, ostensibly on the final Carnegie Hall reunion concert by The Weavers but really about American values in adversity and defiance in the face of repression is especially relevant now, as hundreds of millions behave like sheep over a winter influenza virus and gratefully permit their various versions of Big Brother to squeeze yet more liberty from their already diminished lives.
Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
Whether or not one is an aficionado of Thomas Hardy’s, and despite the author’s occasional 19th century Chauvanism toward women, Far from the Madding Crowd is an easy book to love. Its four major characters are beautifully drawn, none of them shaded entirely one way or the other; as in life, they are neither heroic, nor villainous, although each is entirely human and therefore eminently capable of both heroism and villainy. The essential narrative is relatively simple: A single woman (Bathsheba Everdine) entrances three separate men (Shepherd Oaks, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy). The novel’s progress is over several years as each of the men pursues her, gives up (Oaks), temporarily wins her (Troy) or, unable to, is driven to a mad act of violence (Boldwood). That Batheheba is entirely to blame for Boldwood’s infatuation is not in question — indeed, she shoulders the blame willingly and repeatedly. But should anyone be forced to surrender all hope of future happiness over a youthful prank? Yet Boldwood is not an ogre, merely a man possessed; and if Troy is more than a bit of a cad, he too has his moment of reckoning, although he is unable to resist the temptation to return to the scene when fate has permitted him a handy escape. Of the three only Oaks is able to integrate his love for Bathsheba into his working life, and only he regards her on equal terms and not as a conquest or an ornament. And while it is clear that while Hardy too admires Bathsheba’s independence (she inherits a farm, and works it successfully) we can only assume at the end that, once Oaks’ own inheritance is merged with hers, it will be his farm entirely. Well, one cannot undo the traditions and legalities of the past, although Christ alone knows today’s “woke” filmmakers seem to believe they can if they just ignore them hard enough.
I’m not sure why, since it hews very close to its source, this beautiful and intelligent adaptation by Frederic Raphael and John Schlesinger doesn’t work. Its nearly three-hour running time ensures that most of the central events of the novel are represented; the only major incident not included is Bathsheba’s early rescue of Oaks from suffocation. And the location shooting thoroughly captures the atmosphere of Hardy’s “Wessex,” a geography of the mind not dissimilar to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. (The movie was shot around Dorset, where the author lived and wrote.) Yet despite its splendid cast and handsome photography — Nicholas Roeg was the cinematographer — the movie never quite catches fire. I think the lack has to do with an accumulation of little things; small details Schlesinger and Raphael either miss, or make too much of. I don’t mean the casting of the famously blond Julie Christie as the (equally famously) raven-haired Bathsheba. I’m referring to the overuse of rack-focus; the elongation of the sequence in which Troy shows off his swordsmanship for Bathsheba, which Schlesinger turns into something so over-the-top its erotic metaphor becomes nearly pornographic and his later appearance disguised as Dick Turpin is presented as part of a raucous slapstick circus; the loss of affecting detail in the novel, such as the way Hardy reveals after the murder that Boldwood had painstakingly assembled an entire new wardrobe for his hoped-for bride, or that his execution is stayed at the 11th hour, or even that he attempts suicide and is foiled; or, conversely, needless invention, such as the way, at the end, Oak and Bathsheba’s quiet wedding is turned by the filmmakers into a very public fête.
What absolutely does work are the performances of the actors. Christie catches Bathsheba in all her moods and contradictions; Bates locates Oak’s stoicism as well as his gentle yet dogged professionalism and determination; Stamp is both dashing and mercurial — here coldly commanding, there over-brimming with passion; and Finch, who has the most difficult role in the picture, makes Boldwood dignified and tragic in equal measure. The production design (Richard Macdonald), art direction (Roy Smith), set decoration (Peter James) and costumes (Alan Barrett) are similarly fulsome and apt, and I cannot imagine how the glorious musical score by Richard Rodney Bennett, with its exquisite main theme, could be bettered.
Schlesinger and Roeg, highly proficient throughout even with my reservations about the totality of their work, handle some of the set-pieces splendidly, such as the terrible moment when the younger of Oaks’ two border terriers drives his flock over the cliffs, or the terrible final trek taken by poor Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome) to the workhouse, or the sequence in which Oaks, finding all the men drunk on Troy’s brandy, undertakes the necessary covering of Bathsheba’s ricks of wheat in a punishing thunderstorm, joined in the endeavor by Bathsheba herself, perfectly illustrating how well they work together. But the movie’s failure boils down, ultimately, to a matter of its elements being simultaneously too much, and not enough: After Bathsheba leaves him following their first romantic encounter, Stamp’s Troy sits on the side of the hill in wide shot and the unseen sun above is repeatedly hidden by, and emerges from behind, the clouds, the darkness rolling over the land and being chased again by rays of light. It’s one of the loveliest effects in nature, especially when the field for viewing is vast enough. Here, you get the sense that Schlesinger and Roeg were so in love with it, and so lost in contemplation of its pictorial glory, that they lingered over the moment interminably. There’s a metaphor in that, and not the one they had in mind.
*It appears the Bill Cosby-Sidney Poitier comedy Let’s Do it Again was the big winner in October of 1975 — presumably on the strength of Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, then the inexplicably popular star of Good Times, in a co-starring role — along with the Walter Hill period bare-knuckle boxing picture Hard Times and the belated True Grit sequel (and African Queen rip-off) Rooster Cogburn starring the unlikely duo of John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross