More wonder’d at: Harold Prince (1928 – 2019)

Standard

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at.
 — Prince Hal, 1 Henry IV (I, ii. 221)

By Scott Ross

When Harold S. Prince died in July, at 91, I have the feeling the general reaction among at least two generations who grew up with the effects of his genuinely revolutionary approach to musical theatre was a collective shrug… if they noticed at all. (He wasn’t making news just before he died, and with today’s collective 15-minute memory span, who knows?) Yet nearly everything they, and we, now take for granted, both as audience members and as creative and performing personnel, about the way musicals are staged, and about what their content is permitted to be, stems from Prince’s advances, and from those with whom he collaborated: Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett.

Hal Prince - Hirschfeld resized

Prince in the ’70s by Al Hirschfeld, glasses characteristically perched atop his dome.

Without Prince, the harder-edged musical play would have happened… but not nearly so soon. I say “musical play” as opposed to “musical comedy,” which encompasses everything from George M. Cohan to The Producers. The musical drama, pioneered by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern with Show Boat (1927) and to a degree perfected by Hammerstein in his shows with Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I) was, for all its innovations, unwilling, or incapable, of addressing harsh reality, or even satire; by the time of Oscar’s death, Rodgers & Hammerstein had become the old conservatives of their own movement: Murder, yes, and miscegenation… war and racism… even Nazis (although they don’t sing and dance; we have to wait until Mel Brooks for that). But these are easy to come out against; who’s for Nazis and murderers? On the other hand, it takes real intestinal fortitude to stage near-rapes, gang violence, pogroms, 1930s Reds, brownshirts menacing Jews, American incursion into Japan, serial killers and cannibalism, Fascist rallies, stories that run backwards, Nora after the door-slam, nelly queens and systemic prison abuse, and lynching. That is where Harold S. (“Hal”) Prince comes in, and why we owe him so very much. (Re-reading that last sentence, I am irresistibly reminded of Alan Bennett’s witty bon mot in Beyond the Fringe: “I go to the theatre to be entertained. I want to be taken out of myself. I don’t want to see lust and rape, incest and sodomy — I can get all that at home.”) He also left us in debt by making musicals more cinematic, less convention-bound even in the matter of the spaces between scenes. A Prince show moved, and what he called the “boring holdovers” of blackouts (except when effective dramatically) and “in one” transition bits played before the curtain while stagehands busily moved furniture behind it slowly disappeared. Here Robbins, with West Side Story, is the most important progenitor of a new mode of transit — “through-staging,” we might call it — but Prince, as one of the show’s producers, surely approved. Why should an audience be bored by the same things that bored the people who put the show together?

It seems impossible that he could have been born with the almost jokey-prosaic last name of Smith. Fortunately, his mother re-married a certain Mr. Prince. That was more like it. (I’ve always been rather nonplussed that no one in the press, when profiling Hal Prince and his innovations, saw the Shakespearean obvious: Just reverse the names.) Prince began his theatrical career as an assistant stage manager, then a stage manager, for George Abbott, eventually becoming, with Robert E. Griffith, Abbott’s producer. The first Prince/Griffith show, The Pajama Game (1954, score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, choreography by Fosse, co-directed by Abbott and Robbins), was a massive hit. The team followed it up with Damn Yankees (1955, also Adler and Ross, with Abbott and Fosse), New Girl in Town (1957, Bob Merrill out of Eugene O’Neill, with dances by Fosse), Fiorello! (1959, Bock and Harnick, directed by Abbott) and Tenderloin (1960, ditto) with a break from Abbott for West Side Story in 1957. When Griffith died in 1961, Prince became a solo producer with the comedy Take Her, She’s Mine (1961) and when David Merrick walked away from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962, directed by Abbott, ghosted by Robbins) Prince stepped in, largely as a favor to the show’s composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. In 1964, he had his greatest success until the late 1980s with Fiddler on the Roof (1964, staged by Robbins), which kept his production office going through any number of bad years and disappointing shows. Prince’s last musical purely as producer (1965’s Flora, The Red Menace) strikes one now — as indeed it struck many then — as a very tame affair. Although it was peripherally concerned with ’30s labor agitation, toward which “Mr. Abbott” was predictably cool, it boasted the first Kander and Ebb score and gave Liza Minnelli her first starring role, and defining number (“It’s a Quiet Thing.”)


she-loves-me-1963-cook-massey-conforti

She Loves Me: Barbara Cook, Gino Conforti and Daniel Massey

The second phase of Prince’s career, overlapping the first, was as a producer and director, mostly of musicals: A Family Affair (1962, music by John Kander with lyrics by the librettists, James and William Goldman), the exquisite She Loves Me (1963, once more with Bock and Harnick), It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman (1966, score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams). But it was his last show of 1966 that would mark the real turning point. Within (and without) a more or less square musicalization, not of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories so much as the pale John Van Druten play made of them, lurked a striking, even frightening, political floorshow, a fierce, grinning Brechtian commentary on the action, and the disintegrating Weimar Republic, conducted by a grotesque little Master of Ceremonies, patent-leather hair parted in the center, rouge, mascara and lipstick splitting his clown-white face at strategic angles.

This character, no part of any previous iteration of the material, is pure, impure Prince; during his military service he’d seen, in a seedy Stuttgart nightclub, a dwarf M.C. made up exactly that way. The gorilla in a tutu the Master of Ceremonies sings to was likewise part of a dream Prince had during rehearsals, and which he got Kander and Ebb to musicalize. I am the furthest thing from a subscriber to auteurism, and as a one-time playwright my sympathies are naturally more attuned to the writers than to the vaunted “directocracy” (and now, it seems, “dramaturgic community”) that wants credit for everything done in a play or musical. But what Prince wrought with Cabaret — indeed, throughout his entire career as a creative collaborator — is an example of what can happen with a visionary director has a hand in shaping theatrical material. Prince also used a galvanizing experience he had at Moscow’s Taganka Theatre, where he saw a blazingly theatrical production of a play based on John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, and whose effects, such as using spots trained upward from the stage floor to create a curtain of light, he carried with him forever after. (That Orson Welles had done similar things in the 1930s does not diminish their impact; whatever is neglected will seem new when re-discovered.) The loose form Prince developed for Cabaret freed him to give everything a shot.

What he came to call the “Limbo” numbers of Cabaret were what the show was really about, and had its creators (which included Kander and Ebb, the book writer Joe Masteroff, and the choreographer Ron Field) played to those strengths and remained wholly true to their intentions — and to Isherwood’s homosexuality — the show would have likely run a tiny fraction of its eventual 1,165 performances but would have been a greater blow for the freedom of creative expression in the marketplace. Still, for Prince it was an impressive hurling down of a personal gauntlet. Its success gave him, and a lot of other people, permission to try.

Cabaret - Wilkommen (Joel Grey)

Cabaret: Joe Grey leads the performers of the Kit Kat Klub in “Wilkommen.” Note the titled mirror, which reflected the audience back at itself, forcing it to become a part of what it was witnessing. Jill Haworth, the show’s Sally Bowles, is at right.

His, and Kander and Ebb’s, follow-up, the almost unrelievedly dark Zorbá (1968) and told through even stronger theatrical means, ran less than a third as long as Cabaret, which tells you something. But it was with his next two musicals that Prince made his boldest statement yet. First, developing with the actor/playwright George Furth a fragmentary narrative frame for a seemingly unconnected series of marital and romantic encounters — the first of the so-called “concept” musicals — Prince and Sondheim (and Michael Bennett, who choreographed) concocted a book musical almost more like a revue: Bold, witty (although perhaps a bit more arch than was good for it), wildly theatrical, sophisticated in content, style and form, Company (1970) was unlike any musical comedy before it. And if it caused arguments (there were those who loathed it) they were as nothing to what Follies inspired.

Company - Being Alive

Company: Dean Jones as Bobby. Note the body language of those “good and crazy people,” his friends. What they are urging him toward — marriage — in this configuration looks so unsettling it’s no wonder he’s ambivalent.

Follies drew blood, and meant to. Originally intended, under the title The Girls Upstairs, by Sondheim and James Goldman as a sort of musical murder-mystery (or, as Goldman called it, a “Who’ll-Do-It?”) set against a reunion of old showgirls, the musical evolved under Prince’s tutelage into a ghost story, a metaphor for the nervous America of the Nixon era, an extravagant reverie on loss, disillusion and regret set to music — specifically, the music of America before and between the wars, in the “Follies” numbers, and, in the “book” scenes, the singular and piercingly modern voice of Sondheim. No musical before it had hit back so forcefully against what the creators thought was the lie of pop culture, and of the Popular Songbook itself: The phony optimism, sexless love and happily-ever-after dreams that sustained generations of Americans, and American songwriters, who woke up one day and realized it was all shit.

Set in an old, crumbling theatre about to be demolished (itself a potent metaphor) Follies presented past and present at once, with impossibly tall, ghostly showgirls floating through the action and its main characters appearing on stage in both their current and their former personae. Goldman’s dialogue frequently overlapped past and present, and when the four protagonist/antagonists’ feelings bubbled over, everything split apart, reality replaced with a “Follies” of the mind, in which, singly, the quartet expressed their dissatisfaction in traditional musical-comedy terms that revealed a kind of anger and bitterness no such song ever admitted to in the past.* A “You Don’t Know the Half of it Dearie, Blues,” baggy-pants routine for a philandering husband, his bored wife and overly avid lover; an aching, emotionally naked torch number, slightly reminiscent of “Black Coffee,” for a woman who for 30 years has been in love with an unattainable ideal. And long before that show-within-a-show, there were contrapuntal duets for a singer and her younger self (“One More Kiss,” one of the show’s major musical metaphors), a dance number (“Who’s That Woman?”) in which ageing flesh and uncertain limbs are juxtaposed with the bright and beautiful bodies of the past, and a  soaring love duet (“Too Many Mornings”) in which the lovers sing past each other, she seeing him even in his middle age as her perfect love, he seeing only her lovelier past self.

Follies - Too Many Mornings embrace

“Too Many Mornings”: Dorothy Collins as Sally, who can no longer tell the difference between the past and the present; Marti Rolph as Young Sally; and John McMartin as Ben, who does see it. One of the most moving, and chilling, moments in the American musical.

Young people, perhaps especially those (usually gay) with a knowledge of the history of musicals, loved the show. Older spectators, uncomfortable with what they were being shown about themselves, hated it. But Follies dared. It said, in Sondheim’s words, “that to live in the past is foolish,” and not doing so becomes harder with age. In a show this music-heavy, and which depended so strongly on songs and dances to grow its metaphors, Prince made the smart decision to share direction with Bennett. It was his most dance-heavy show, and one sometimes wishes he — and Sondheim — had trusted that more in the years to come; eschewing dance in favor of “movement” loses you a lot, even in a “serious” musical, including the goodwill of audiences, who love watching dancers in a musical.

Follies’ effect was one of Total Theatre. With Florence Klotz’s extravagant costumes, Tharon Musser’s atmospheric lighting and Boris Aronson’s deteriorating sets moving with fluidity from one space to another, and all adhering to a single idea, Follies is arguably the most perfectly integrated musical ever created. And in Dorothy Collins’ Sally it presented the American musical’s first true madwoman, her brain split apart by the unbridgeable abyss between obsessive fantasy and untenable reality; Sally’s final line (“Oh, dear God — it is tomorrow!”) was the most despairing ever written for a musical.


Send in the Clowns

“Send in the Clowns”: Glynis Johns as Desirée in A Little Night Music.

The next Prince/Sondheim was almost the antithesis of Follies, a romantic European period musical — one based on Bergman, admittedly, and with dark undertones to the froth — in which, through the composer’s strange alchemy, all of the music was in three-quarter time. Even so, A Little Night Music (1973) actually ran fewer performances than its predecessor. (Its “hit” song, “Send in the Clowns,” only became big two years after the show opened, when Sinatra and Judy Collins recorded it.) The next year, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Prince produced a re-conceived, and largely re-written, edition of Leonard Bernstein’s esteemed 1957 flop Candide. With (at her insistence) the original Lillian Hellman book jettisoned — Hugh Wheeler wrote the revision, hewing closer to Voltaire — old numbers cut, new ones created using trunk music (the lyrics were Sondheim’s), a vaudevillian structure and an environmental staging, the show was so successful it virtually demanded a Broadway transfer.

Never content to play it safe, Prince convinced young John Weidman (John’s son) to let him musicalize his un-performed play about the opening of Japan by the West and corralled Sondheim to compose for it. The result, Pacific Overtures (1972) was a glorious nonesuch, a nearly operatic meditation on American imperialist power kitted out with Kabuki conventions (including invisible stagehands, a Lion Dancer and men playing the female roles) and an entirely Asian cast. Its score is among Sondheim’s finest, especially in the phenomenal “Someone in a Tree,” during which past and present meet, commingle, conjoin, and explode, with one of the most hair-raisingly glorious climaxes ever heard in a Broadway theatre. Pacific Overtures enjoyed only 193 performances, but that it ran at all, much less during the Bicentennial year, is something of a miracle.

Pacific Overtures - Please Hello

“Please Hello”: Yuki Shimoda, center, importuned — and threatened — by Admirals from Britain (Alvin Ing), America (Ernest Harada) and Holland (Patrick Kinser-lau)

Prince’s next show may have seemed a surer thing. On the Twentieth Century (1978) boasted a Hecht and MacArthur pedigree (they based it on an unproduced play by Charles Bruce Milholland called Napoleon of Broadway, a satire of the impresario David Belasco) and movie aficionados might have recalled the hilarious 1934 Howard Hawks movie with John Barrymore and Carol Lombard. The score, maybe his richest, was by Cy Coleman, and the book and the genuinely witty lyrics were by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. However… their concept was not, as might have been expected, hot 1930s Broadway jazz but, inspired by the absurd comic passions of the larger-than-life leading characters, opéra bouffe, which may have been a hard sell. Set largely on the eponymous train, the show had a fabulous, gleaming Art Deco design by Robin Wagner and three indelible comedic performers in John Cullum, Madeline Kahn and Imogene Coca (plus Kevin Kline in an athletic supporting role) but it was a costly show and Kahn was unreliable. Her understudy (later replacement), Judy Kaye, was from the evidence every bit as inspired and musically sound, but it always hurts to have your above-the-title star making a habit of not showing up when fans are expecting her, and Kaye was then an unknown. It won a Best Score Tony® but only ran 449 performances.

On the twentieth century

On the Twentieth Century: The “It’s a Contract” sextet. From left, John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Dean Dittman, George Coe, Kevin Kline, and Imogene Coca. (Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts)

Significantly, On the Twentieth Century marked the third phase of Prince’s career, as a director only. The increasing cost of Broadway production, plus the ageing-out of his old reliable angels, had made producing less fun and took his attentions away from mounting his shows. From this point to the end of his life, and with few exceptions, Prince was a director only. It may have lost him some money when it came to projects like Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, but he was by then already wealthy enough. (Easy for me to say? When you produce Fiddler on the Roof and have a second house on Majorca you’re not exactly starving.)

The next Prince/Sondheim collaboration yielded a masterwork. The composer had seen Christopher Bond’s 1973 Marxist rendering of the Victorian penny-dreadful Sweeney Todd in London, and thought it might make an interesting chamber musical, with a few songs. He’d intended writing the book himself but as it grew he needed assistance, and called in his friend Hugh Wheeler, who had written the book for A Little Night Music and assisted John Weidman on Pacific Overtures. The piece got larger as it went along, with Sondheim ending up composing what amounted to a demi-operatic score. It’s a show in which music is present throughout, either in song or as underscore (Sondheim wanted a Bernard Herrmann sound, and got it). It also featured the strangest content of the composer’s oeuvre. The original (called The String of Pearls) featured serial murder and unwitting cannibalism, as the victims of the “demon barber” were conveniently baked into meat pies by Sweeney’s accomplice Mrs. Lovett. Bond made Todd less a remorseless villain than a societal victim bent on revenge who, maddened by his inability to wreak his vengeance on the hated judge who sentenced him to exile, raped his wife and took in his daughter (and on whom the jurist now also has lecherous designs), focuses his rage on the entire human species. It was a heavy brew, leavened only by Lovett, now a convivial if criminally opportunistic comedian.

With Prince aboard, and the leads entrusted to Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Sweeney developed into a black-comedy thriller of epic proportions in its sweep and physical production (Prince and his designer Eugene Lee disassembled an old New England foundry and employed its parts, some of them working, for the set) and the sheer size of the sick joke at its core. In the contours of its themes and content it was absolutely non pariel, in its (no pun intended) execution, a work of genius, and of art. Not even the smallish but growing legion of Prince/Sondheim fans saw it coming.

A Little Priest

Sweeney Todd: Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou performing “A Little Priest,” the most macabre first act finale in Broadway musical history, and the funniest.

The show was overwhelming, in every particular. I count myself fortunate that it was my first Broadway musical seen on Broadway, and that I caught it with what Sondheim called “the unbeatable combination” of Cariou and Lansbury (although, alas, by the time I saw it, in December of 1979, Victor Garber was gone and Sarah Rice had been dismissed). It was also, I could just about swear, the first black-and-white musical I’d ever seen, its deliberate grayness of person, setting and costume mitigated only by the blood, shockingly and vividly red.

If Sweeney had a flaw, it was the size of the physical production, which, while intentional — the cruelty and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution was a subtextual theme of the show — somewhat dwarfed the action. This was proven to my satisfaction when I acted in a small college production of in 1982, the first such in the Southeastern states (I was Toby), and again when I saw the scaled-down Circle in the Square revival in 1989 starring the splendid Bob Gunton and Beth Fowler. There the major drawback was the minimization of the music, reduced to synthesizer accompaniment and dubbed by Gerald Alessandrini in his Forbidden Broadway series, quite rightly, as Teeny Todd. But I was aware even while watching the original that in Lansbury and Cariou I was being privileged to witness two of the great, galvanic performances in Broadway musical history, to hear in Sondheim’s music and lyrics one of the finest of all American musical theatre scores, and in see in Prince’s staging one of the modern theatre’s most impressive feats of direction. If not the show of the century (I think that was likely Follies, or perhaps the original Pogry and Bess, both of which I can imagine only in the theatre of my mind), Sweeney was certainly one of them.


Prince’s follow-up was not an American show, but the stage version of a British concept album by the creators of a previous successful LP-to-stage hybrid, Jesus Christ Superstar. The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice Evita (1979) premiered in London, with Elaine Page as Eva Peron. In America there was some revision of the material, and a long tour beginning in California, the release of the 2-LP cast recording pre-dating the Broadway opening on which its Eva, Patti LuPone, who often strained for notes (she later wrote that Lloyd Webber “hated women” and that he would not lower keys to accommodate her voice) but as a star presence was nearly incandescent.

The show was criticized for seeming to glorify its fascist subject by people who, carried away with the power of Prince’s staging (and Larry Fuller’s dance movement) in the first act finale, couldn’t take their irony without a scorecard. A much stronger case could be made, not against the show’s point of view — the inclusion of a Greek chorus figure called Che (Mandy Patinkin in his Broadway musical debut) made that plain enough, or should have — but in critiquing its surface treatment of complex issues and personalities. But Evita certainly had its moments, not least of which were its clever metaphors (revolving power as a game of musical chairs, for instance, and the way the aristos moved together in a fashion not unlike Bob Fosse’s organic “amoebas” and were, late in the show, literally stripped of their possessions) and that chilling first act closure, one so powerful Lotte Lenya recognized in the manipulation of Argentinian voters and media a reflection of what she’d lived through as Weimar Germany collapsed and loosed the Nazi daemon. Interestingly, especially for an inveterate Lloyd Webber skeptic like me — I prefer his pop/rock passages to his better-loved, soupier Puccini imitations — the show actually plays better as a recording, where you don’t mind the elliptical structure or the thin characterizations. But even via a stripped-down, bus-and-truck tour, Evita was something to see.

Hal Prince and Patti LuPone Evita.jpg

Evita - Patinkin, Lapone resized

Just a little touch of star quality: Patti LuPone as Evita with Prince (above) in rehearsals and Mandy Patinkin (below) on stage. (Color photo: Martha Swope.)

With his next show, Prince hit the beginning of what can only be called a long losing streak that was as precipitous a decline as his previous rise had been formidable; he was, at the time, as one with Bennett (A Chorus Line), Fosse (Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago) and Gower Champion (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly… an interesting juxtaposition) in the league of Broadway musical “super-directors,” his name as well-known as those of his songwriters, and his shows, and deficient only in that he did not also choreograph. It began with the ill-conceived Merrily We Roll Along (1981), an adaptation of a depressing, flop Kaufman and Hart drama (there’s a tip-off right there) reconfigured as a musical brimming with un-tested youth, and with Sondheim a reluctant collaborator. The play’s structure, telling the story of its central character’s rise and fall in reverse, was retained, and it was there that the concept really caught fire. Unlike with many musicals (and indeed plays) which peter out after intermission, Merrily‘s second act topped its first, and the songs, largely based around a particular chromatic structure, got better and better until, by the end, when you’d experienced their development and realized how subtly and traditionally they had been expanding all evening, they were both exhilarating and heartbreaking in their emotional pain and their optimistic ebullience: There aren’t many second act builds in American musicals as good as the progress from “Not a Day Goes By” to “Opening Doors” to “Our Time,” and what the ignorati call “show tunes” don’t rate much higher either. But the piece, under Prince’s direction, was frustrating, its Eugene Lee gymnasium sets tacky and its proliferation of characters so confusing to its preview audiences that the creators were reduced to slapping T-shirts and sweaters on the actors with their characters’ names, or phrases like “Producer” and “Best Friend,” emblazoned across their fronts. When Merrily opened it received the worst reviews Prince and Sondheim had gotten yet, and ran 16 performances before shuttering. Sondheim blamed the critics, believing, not without reason, that they were gunning for him and Prince. But while time has been kind to his score, few indeed are those who feel the original production of the show that contained them was under-appreciated.

Merrily - Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, Sally Klein

Merrily We Roll Along: Lonny Price, Ann Morrison, Jim Walton, Sally Klein

Fortunately, as with Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records on Sondheim’s earlier flop Anyone Can Whistle, Thomas Z. Shepard recorded the score anyway, preserving a wistful souvenir of a might-have-been that, whatever its flaws as a show, contained a set of songs so good they couldn’t be allowed to languish in artistic limbo. Indeed, Sondheim and James Lapine later revised the show, originally written with George Furth, casting it with rueful adults rather than enthusiastic kids. Yet even Off-Broadway it didn’t run long, and it’s never going to be a rouser with the public, any more than Assassins or Pacific Overtures. The greatest irony in this musical about old friends lay in Prince and his choreographer, Ron Field, nearly coming to blows after a performance, and ending their long friendship and collaboration. They subsequently reconciled, but Merrily’s failure also put an effective end to the artistically compelling, if financially risky, Prince/Sondheim corporation.

Prince’s creative recession continued in 1982 with A Doll’s Life, which he for some mad reason chose to produce as well as direct and which eked out two more performances than Merrily. It was a notably cheerless affair to have a book and lyrics by Comden and Green, picking up Nora Helmer after she slammed the door and performed as a play-within-a-rehearsal, something John Gielgud attempted with his 1964 Hamlet and which perhaps only Orson Welles, in his Moby Dick—Rehearsed, managed to pull off. A Doll’s Life is one of those shows for which you remember the negative reviews more than the songs. I have the cast album. I’ve listened to it once. But two lines from John Simon’s critique in New York magazine have remained with me; of Larry Grossman’s lugubrious score, Simon likened it to “two bars of Sondheim, stretched on a rack” and said of the show as a whole that it “should make passionate door-slammers of us all.” Unsurprisingly, the cast knew the production was headed for the dust-bin. Its star, Betsy Joslyn, knitted as Prince gave his final notes before the opening; when he asked what she was working on she held up her handiwork and replied, “A coffin cover for the show.” Well, at least George Hearn, Cariou’s replacement as Sweeney Todd, got a Tony® nomination out of it.


The downturn in Prince’s fortunes worsened with, in succession: Play Memory (4 performances, 1984), the baseball revue Diamonds (122 performances, Circle in the Square, 1984) and Grind (Larry Grossman again, with Prince producing again… do some people never learn?… April – June 1985). Salvation came, financially if not artistically, with the 1986 Lloyd Webber The Phantom of the Opera, although its raison d’être, for a man of Prince’s convictions, is almost wholly inexplicable. Certainly no one can accuse the director of not giving his all to it, what with subterranean, candle-lit lakes and (at least initially, in London) old-fashioned scene-moving equipment — shades of that New England foundry in Sweeney — but other than desperation I can see no reason for him to have undertaken such a creatively barren, soppy enterprise. But with 13,270 Broadway performances, who knows how many in London, and only Cameron Mackintosh’s accountants aware of the additional revenue generated from touring companies, music sales, recordings and DVDs, Prince’s widow is likely set for life from his cut of this one show alone, not to mention his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well. As if to atone, in 1987 Prince assayed the flop Roza, which ran two months before closing, and a revival of Cabaret, which lasted 261 performances, with Joel Grey given top billing now (he was fifth in 1966) for the same role he’d played 21 years earlier.

Kiss of the Spider Woman - Brent Carver, Chita Rivera, and Anthony Crivello

Kiss of the Spider Woman: Brent Carver, Chita Rivera, and Anthony Crivello. (Martha Swope / The New York Public Library) 

Although Prince’s involvement with the musicalization of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman eventually yielded a Broadway run of over 900 performances, its beginnings spotlighted an episode of ugliness that ultimately destroyed a potentially useful program. In 1990 the Performing Arts Center at SUNY-Purchase created New Musicals to provide “a working home for sixteen new musicals over four years,” one of the first of which was Kiss. Broadway critics were urged to stay away from these workshops but Frank Rich in his magnificent arrogance decided his pronouncements were more important than giving writers, actors and creative personnel the safety to fail more privately; he and others duly hied to Purchase and wrote highly negative reviews that killed the show’s chances for years, and destroyed the New Musicals program in the process. Were it not for the (now-disgraced) Garth Drabinsky and Livent, that might have been the end of it. Drabinsky presented the musical first in Toronto, then in London, before deigning to let Broadway get a look at it. While the show’s Kander and Ebb score is good, it isn’t great, and it may well be that Rich’s criticisms were valid; in his review of the eventual Broadway edition, he wrote that the musical “does not meet all the high goals it borrows from Manuel Puig’s novel. When it falls short, it pushes into pretentious overdrive… and turns the serious business of police-state torture into show-biz kitsch every bit as vacuous as the B-movie clichés parodied in its celluloid fantasies. Yet the production does succeed… in using the elaborate machinery of a big Broadway musical to tell the story of an uncloseted, unhomogenized, unexceptional gay man who arrives at his own heroic definition of masculinity.”

Rich’s self-important tactics at SUNY-Purchase, however, were and remain an example of how those equipped with tunnel-vision and a convenient set of professional ethics are perfectly willing to extinguish a needed corrective to the problems of creative people in what was, and had long been, an increasingly perilous milieu (and which Rich well knew.) He and his cohorts could have gone to Purchase out of curiosity, seen the show, and either kept mum permanently or held off on expressing their opinions until after the workshop. But their egotism, their need to air their verdicts, was stronger than their desire to see new Broadway musicals thrive, or to allow creative artists to experiment without censure. To Rich, the ability to critique without restriction was more important than the nation perhaps getting one or two good shows  out of the experience.

Showboat - John McMartin and cast

Show Boat: John McMartin and company. (Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts)

Prince’s 1993 Livent revival of Show Boat “was deliberately staged to cast attention on racial disparities; throughout the production, African-American actors constantly cleaned up messes, appeared to move the sets (even when hydraulics actually moved them), and performed other menial tasks” (Wikipedia). Naturally, the production was met with protests from self-styled black “leaders” who, predictably, picketed the show — and Prince, whom they screeched at for being that hated thing, a Jew — without seeing it. But then, pressure from Jewish groups forced Prince and company to alter that moment in Cabaret (restored in Bob Fosse’s movie) when the increasingly Nazi-embracing M.C. confides to us that if we could see her through his eyes, his gorilla girlfriend “wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

It’s a wonder anyone ever attempts anything bold in Western culture.

Parade - Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello

Parade: Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello

Post-Show Boat Prince shows included one of many attempts to interest an indifferent public in Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind (1996); a revival of Candide (1997) with Jim Dale as Pangloss, Andrea Martin as the Old Lady and an  unexceptional Harolyn Blackwell as Cunegonde (Prince had previously directed the 1994 Civic Opera House production); and Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade (1998), which he initiated. (Prince had asked Sondheim to compose the score, but he passed.) The story of Leo Frank’s arrest, trial, imprisonment and eventual lynching for the rape and murder of 13-year old Mary Phagan, a worker in his Atlanta pencil factory, a crime of which the Jewish Frank was entirely innocent, had previously been explored in an excellent television mini-series (The Murder of Mary Phagan, 1988, starring Jack Lemmon as the former Georgia Governor John Slaton and Peter Gallagher as Frank) but this was prime Prince territory. It ran three months. Although the show and its score were popular with critics and musical aficionados generally, the subject of American miscarriages of justice is no crowd-pleaser, as Kander and Ebb and Susan Strohman discovered to their cost when they mounted their masterpiece The Scottsboro Boys a few years later.

Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett resized

Prince’s first theatrical venture in the new century was a heart-breaker: Hollywood Arms (2002), Carrie Hamilton and her mother Carol Burnett’s stage adaptation of Burnett’s memoir One More Time concerning her childhood with her grandmother and her unreliable parents. Well before there was a Chicago or New York production, Hamilton’s lung cancer spread to her brain, and she was killed by the pneumonia that resulted. The play was received rapturously by, of all people, John Simon, who wrote of it:

“Plays about passion are profuse and easy: heterosexual or homosexual, interracial or senescent, kinky or chaste. What is difficult and rare is a play about affection, which is what Carrie Hamilton and Carol Burnett’s Hollywood Arms is. Authentic affection: not syrupy or sentimental, posturing or feel-good-ish, gussied up for theatrical effect. Hollywood Arms is about real people who fight or let one another down, jab and jeer, needle and explode, but also, when need be, help people who are sarcastic or pathetic failures, impoverished and disappointed.

“But Hollywood Arms has yet another form of invaluable affection, that of Harold Prince for the characters and their story. You will never see more feelingful insight, more self-effacing love for their quirks, foibles, and kindnesses, from a director for his stage children, big and small. If only this thoroughly endearing play and production could have been seen by Burnett’s daughter and co-author, Carrie Hamilton, dead before even the Goodman Theatre premiere. One fervently hopes that the joy of such a true creation accompanied her on her final journey.”

Hollywood Arms ran all of 76 performances.

Things like this are part of the reason I no longer write plays.

There were other Prince shows in the next 17 years, but I’m afraid my increasing antipathy and indifference to live theatre generally, and to new musicals specifically, prevents my having much to say about them. In 2003 came the Goodman Theatre production of Sondheim and Weidman’s Mizner Brothers show, now called Bounce (it premiered at the Kennedy Center as Gold!) That engagement represented the extent of Prince’s involvement in the project, which has been revised and re-written for years by its authors and is now known as Road Show. Even my 45-year old veneration for Sondheim has not been sufficient these past 15 years or so to get me to put either the Bounce or Road Show cast recording on the CD player. I’m afraid for me that particular ship not only sailed but foundered, and sunk. I have also not heard the recording, on Ghostlight, of Prince and Uhry’s LoveMusik (2007) based on the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya and including a laundry list of Weill songs. My ennui regarding Broadway musicals is now so complete that not even Donna Murphy is adequate enticement.

Prince attempted a Jerome Robbins’ Broadway sort of career retrospective in 2015, but aside from a tryout in Japan(!) and at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Prince of Broadway hasn’t made a ripple. This, I’m afraid, is the fate now of Broadway’s old innovators. If they can get an airing for something that isn’t a pre-sold property like a musical retread of some hit movie, they’re lucky; if it runs, it’s a miracle. And what does run is enough to make anyone who cares about theatre, or who used to, give up on it entirely. That’s not to mention the audiences who now, trained by television talent shows, give an automatic standing ovation to everything they see, diminishing the spontaneous tribute to a mere expectation — an accoutrement, as meaningless as the ubiquitous sound-board that has turned the musical into a glorified rock-arena show.

With the American musical reduced now to the “synergy” of Disney shows attempting to cram old animated wine into new live-action bottles and asinine hip-hop editions of American history, it’s no wonder the Princes and Sondheims of the Broadway theatre can find no home there.



I’ve said little here about Harold Prince as a man, but I think his work and his legacy are what matters. My own playwriting was as influenced by the stagecraft of Cabaret, Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures as the plays I read and absorbed by Chekhov, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein and Larry Kramer, and I am not ashamed to say so just because those shows were “mere musicals.” That Prince had an ego, and foibles, and wasn’t always the nicest person around is a given; he’d not only have been pretty rare not to, he’d have been inhuman. Richard Bissell based a character in his novel (and subsequent play-with-music) Say, Darling on Prince, and Bob Fosse left a wicked impression of him via John Lithgow’s performance as a grasping Broadway director in All That Jazz (1979), even unto Lithgow perching his sunglasses atop his head in a very Princelike fashion. (Both Prince and Sondheim, by the way, took a dim view of Fosse’s achievements, expressing their reservations in a highly self-serving fashion. See Sam Wasson’s biography Fosse.)

Like Fosse, Prince also tried directing movies, but found the experience unsatisfying. Something for Everyone (1970) is a good black comedy (although not nearly as dark as the novel on which it was based) but A Little Night Music (1977) is a mess, losing most of Sondheim’s great score and even transporting — by demand of the picture’s international financiers, I presume — the show’s Bergmanesque Swedish setting to sunny Vienna, I suppose to justify the waltzes.

In 1974 and at the height of his notoriety Prince dictated his theatrical memories as a book that, over the years, has been one of the most well-thumbed in my library. In Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-six Years in the Theatre (Dodd, Mead) he provided context, history and origin for all his shows, from Damn Yankees to Candide. Thankfully, Prince expanded that useful book as Sense of Occasion (Applause, 2017), offering some revised opinions on his previous statements and bringing the reader up to date. Perusing this second volume last winter I was struck by how much I remembered from previous readings in my 20s of Contradictions, and despite my coolness now to theatre, grateful again for what Prince brought to it. I even, reading about the evolutions of Cabaret and Follies, felt some small stirrings of my former passion. Not enough to wipe out my distaste for, and distrust of, the theatre as it is currently constituted in America (and, judging from podcasts from the National Theatre, it’s scarcely better in Britain) but at least sufficient to remind me that there was a time when it all mattered.

And it mattered more for Prince being there.


* Cabaret, Company and Follies all, to a degree, owe something to two musicals: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1947 Allegro and the virtually un-known, sadly un-remembered (and un-recorded!) Kurt Will-Alan Jay Lerner musical Love Life (1948) which among other things ends with its married lovers on a tight-rope, groping their way toward each other. Mark N. Grant: “Alan Jay Lerner described Love Life as a cavalcade of American marriage. The unusual structure of the show alternates scenes chronicling the Cooper family’s progression through successive periods of American history starting in the 1790s with vaudeville-style acts that comment on the main story. The two types of scenes do not overlap until the end of Part II. The Coopers’ ages do not change noticeably despite the 150-year lapse of time.” Grant, it should be noted, wrote the single best book on the American musical theatre I’ve read in years. The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (Northeastern University Press, 2004) is not only erudite and technically impeccable (the author is also a musician and composer) but expresses admirable disgust at the decline of a once-great popular art form.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre Quarterly Report: April — June, 2019

Standard

By Scott Ross

The Doors - Kilmer

The Doors (1991) Oliver 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 composed wholly and entirely of heterosexuals.



Alexander - Bagoas
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut
(2004 / 2013) I missed Oliver 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.


The Stunt Man - crane
The Stunt Man (1979) The virtues, and the weaknesses, of this essential one-off remain intact after four decades.


zeppo_marx_groucho_marx_animal_crackers_dictation_scene1

“Jameson, take a letter to my lawyer…”

Animal Crackers (1930) This was my first Marx Brothers movie, seen at a late-show screening when I was 15. That event took place a couple of years after Steve Stolier was instrumental in getting Universal to strike a new print and release it to theatres, where it proved surprisingly popular. Or perhaps not so surprisingly; the 1960s vogue among college students both for old movies and for their anti-hero stars (Bogart, Cagney, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marxes) was still with us in 1974, and the night I saw the picture, in tandem with my mother — whom I blessed then, and still do, for taking me to a movie at 11.30 on a Saturday night in summer and not complaining about it — the place was nearly full, the big audience roaring at Groucho’s 45-year old puns and topical jokes. My love for the Marxes, whom I had previously encountered only in print, photos and old recordings, increased a hundred-fold that night. And Mom had a good time, too.

I discovered only comparatively recently that Paramount truncated several scenes and trimmed some mildly risqué dialogue from this “Pre-Code” comedy for a late-‘30s reissue of the movie, so the inclusion of a clean, un-censored copy on The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection Blu-ray boxed set is particularly welcome. If you know the picture already you won’t see reinstated entire scenes you don’t recall, but the mild shock of hearing Groucho engage in some additional, suggestive repartee in his “Jameson, take a letter” sequence with Zeppo, or realizing that even the “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” opening number was slightly expurgated, will simply add to your pleasure at seeing this lively, joyous enterprise again. Especially since, even more than the somewhat deadly 1929 movie of The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers gives a prime example of just how spontaneous and original Mrs. Marx’s boys must have been on the stage.



The Manchurian Candidate
(1962) Pet peeve, which over the years has become even petter, or peevier: People who use the phrase “Manchurian Candidate” and think they’re referring to an assassin. Raymond Shaw, the hapless marksman brainwashed to commit a crime once considered “unthinkable,” is not the eponymous figure of Richard Condon’s sharp, strange novel, written in the late 1950s but, science-fiction like, projected as the narrative of a future event; the “Manchurian Candidate” is in fact his hated stepfather, the at once bibulous, doltish and McCarthyesque Senator John Iselin. Pauline Kael thought the book “fool-proof” for adaptation, and so slighted George Axelrod’s exceptional screenplay: While he retains much of Condon’s slightly off-center dialogue, Axelrod’s changes are felicitous, and beyond mere streamlining. They are also the very things auteurists go into rapture over, presuming that it simply must have been the movie’s director, John Frankenheimer, who devised the dizzying, disorienting approach to the flashback sequences in Manchuria. That these are beautifully shot and edited is undeniable, but the concept was entirely Axelrod’s. It’s also axiomatic among the ignoratti that Frank Sinatra, one of the movie’s producers, kept the picture out of circulation following a single television airing in the mid-1970s (where I first encountered it) out of deference to the memory of Jack Kennedy. Not at all. He merely wanted more money than he was being offered.

Manchurian Candidate

Note the way the filmmakers frame a live political event: Power-mad Lansbury watches, not her dippy Senator husband, but the way he’s showing up on television.

The moment late in the movie in which Shaw’s manipulative mother (Angela Lansbury) plants a deep kiss on his lips was shocking in 1962, but Condon goes even further, both with the character’s hellish personality and with her incestuous impulses; her first lover was her father, and she does far more than merely kiss Raymond. Lansbury was universally admired for her performance, and she should be. So, for that matter, should Sinatra: As Marco, the viewer’s surrogate, he hits every note with precisely the correct emotional weight. Fortunately, Axelrod removed the ugliest aspect of the character — his (to me, truly brainwashed) determination to save the Medal of Honor from embarrassment, up to and including re-programming Raymond to kill the Iselins and then himself. Axelrod has more respect, for both Raymond and Marco.

The rich supporting cast includes Janet Leigh in a very strange role (no less strange in the novel) whose meaning is open to interpretation; James Gregory as that consummate dope Johnny Iselin; Khigh Dhiegh as the chief Chinese doctor, whose frequent laughter and ready smile are the very opposite of sinister, which somehow makes them even more appalling; and the always splendid John McGiver as a representative of that now thoroughly dead specimen, the liberal Republican. David Amram’s effective score includes one of the most striking main title themes ever heard in an American movie.


Winter Kills - Perkins

Winter Kills (1979) Another Condon adaptation, but nowhere near as successful as The Manchurian Candidate, largely because the writer and director, William Richert, diverges so often from his source. The Condon novel is, like its predecessor, both steeped in American political realities and history, and wildly, almost grotesquely, satirical. It’s a market Condon had cornered, and the wise filmmaker follows his lead. Richert deviates in crucial ways, and in so doing loses much of the demented logic of the book involving a Kennedyesque family, an assassinated president, a deep conspiracy involving intelligence and the Mafia, the American surveillance state and the family’s young scion (Jeff Bridges) suddenly hauled into the middle of it.

Not all of Richert’s alterations are deleterious, however, particularly his use of a woman on a bicycle as the herald of atrocity and his re-imagining of the communications maven played in the picture by Anthony Perkins. Indeed, when I first saw the picture nearly 40 years ago, it was a single throwaway line of Perkins’ — one with no antecedent in Condon — and the way it was delivered, and filmed, that stuck with me.* He also gets a climactic moment with Jeff Bridges that encapsulates the movie’s odd, almost off-hand, approach to black comedy. But what Condon’s fictions really need for effective transmigration to the screen are not wholesale re-writers but creative editors. The fun of his books lies as much in peeling back their layers of deceit and deception as in their peerless dialogue; pull too many pins out of Condon’s puzzles, their entire edifices collapse and you’re left scrambling to pick up the pieces and rebuild without a blueprint. Thus we get Sterling Hayden as a nutso general who is what General Jack D. Ripper might have become if the world hadn’t ended in Dr. Strangelove and Dorothy Malone as Bridges’ idiotic mother, a character long dead in the novel and wholly unnecessary. Worse, Richert turns the Bridges character’s one real ally inexplicably against him at the end — that, or his final scene is so confusingly shot and edited I misunderstood what was happening. Possibly both.

The casting is largely a help, although Toshiro Mifune is wasted in a nothing role, and there isn’t nearly enough of Richard Boone, or of Eli Wallach as a Jack Ruby stand-in. Belinda Bauer is appropriately unfathomable as Bridges’ sometime lover and Elizabeth Taylor puts in a brief but juicy cameo, but John Huston as “Pa” Kegan and Jeff Bridges as his diffident son are utterly perfect. Most of Pa’s lines in the novel sounded as if they were written for Huston’s curious, half-whimsical/half-sinister drawl, and the image of him at the end, clinging to a gargantuan American flag, is both appalling and funny. Bridges meanwhile is ideally cast as the audience surrogate, a young iconoclast who didn’t know his late brother all that well, is equally fascinated and repulsed by his infinitely wealthy father, and trying vainly to go his own way. With his big, open, handsome face and his ability to express both worldliness and shocked naïveté, no one of his age and weight in the ‘70s could play soiled innocence quite as well as Bridges.


American Graffiti 6

American Graffiti (1973) Universal Pictures had so little love for this extremely low-budget George Lucas project the studio nearly blew what eventually became a financial behemoth (13th on the list of top-grossing American movies as late as 1977) and a cultural touchstone of the decade.


Marathon Man - Scheider and Olivier

Marathon Man (1976) This dark, visceral adaptation by William Goldman and John Schlesinger of Goldman’s “What-If?” novel about a Mengele-like Nazi unavoidably drawn to New York City was one of the first “R”-rated movies I ever saw, and it shook me to the core. Pauline Kael was put off by the movie’s classical realism, believing the book’s potboiler status demanded a slicker approach, but I disagree; Schlesinger’s elegant verisimilitude gives the pulp plotting both a stylish patina and a prevailing sense of dread that drenches the narrative like a fever-dream. As the screenwriter, Goldman cleverly re-imagined his exciting novel for the screen, and his increasingly frightening use of the question “Is it safe?” briefly became a part of the American cultural language… and inspired a new fear of your friendly neighborhood dentist that was only slightly less pronounced than the embarrassed terror with which swimmers regarded the sea a year earlier, after the release of Jaws.


French Connection - Alan Weeks

The French Connection (1971) One of the toughest, most visceral crime movies of its time, and one that still packs a wallop.


Last Jedi - Ridley and Hamill

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Am I the only one who suspects the only way the Disney Star Wars series can survive is if its creators move past their predecessors? Fortunately, through plotting and attrition, that necessary goal is closer: J.J. Abrams, belatedly fulfilled Harrison Ford’s 1983 wish, killing off Han Solo in his initial movie; Rian Johnson sent Luke Skywalker to his reward here (though one strongly suspects Abrams will use his spirit, a la Alec Guinness, in his upcoming The Rise of Skywalker); and, sadly for those who loved or admired her, Carrie Fisher’s addictions took her out of the picture permanently after she completed her scenes in this, the second installment of the current trilogy. Will any of this spur Abrams’ and Johnson’s successors in future Star Wars projects to abandon the (real or surrogate) fathers-and-sons through-lines of nearly every episode in the franchise so far? Surely there is more than one plot-line in that galaxy!

This observation will probably earn me extreme opprobrium, but I make it without rancor or cruelty: Fisher’s death at least spares us during the forthcoming final third the Hillary Clintonesque conception of Leia by Abrams and Johnson, and which presumably inspired Clinton’s deranged, transductive and Trump-maddened acolytes to begin calling themselves “The Resistance.” Fisher’s delivery in these pictures was so slurred one couldn’t help wondering whether, like her presumed inspiration, Leia’d been off somewhere in the intergalactic woods drinking chardonnay.

The truly hopeful signs of this series have been the development of their central characters: Rey, embodied by the extraordinary Daisy Ridley; John Boyega’s complicated Finn; Kelly Marie Tran’s endearing Rose Tico; and, to a lesser extent, Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, who has had less character development. But Adam Driver, as interesting as he is capable of being, was an odd choice to portray the offspring of Han and Leia, as he looks like neither Fisher nor Ford. Worse, he embodies the inability of the filmmakers to abandon the narrative yokes of the last 40 years of Star Wars movies. Still, he’s just mercurial, and unbalanced, enough to be somewhat unpredictable.


Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait (1978) There are few pleasures quite like discovering that a movie you loved in your youth is not only in no way dated but is every bit as delightful as you remembered. Warren Beatty’s directorial debut (he shared the job with Buck Henry) remains impressive: A gentle, quirky comic fantasy, perfectly cast and, within its fantastic framework, utterly logical. Beatty and the great Elaine May based their screenplay on the 1941 Robert Montgomery comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, itself taken from a play by Harry Segall called Heaven Can Wait… later the title of a 1943 Ernst Lubitsch/Samson Raphaelson collaboration starring Don Ameche, itself a life-after-death fantasy.

The picture concerns a rising professional quarterback called Joe Pendleton (Beatty, looking almost impossibly trim and desirable) who, taken too soon by a presumptuous angel (Henry) is sent back to earth in the body of a rapacious industrialist lately murdered by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and secretary (Charles Grodin). Joe’s determination to lead his old team in the upcoming Super Bowl drives the plot, which aside from the hilariously homicidal lovers includes Joe’s accommodating guardian angel Mr. Jordan (James Mason), a passionate and outraged British environmentalist (Julie Christie), Joe’s befuddled former trainer (Jack Warden) and three sublimely unflappable servants (Joseph Maher, Hamilton Camp and Arthur Malet.) It’s among the most agreeable comedies of its era, wonderfully light on its feet — both emotionally plangent and dry as vermouth.


Who Framed Roger Rabbit image-29

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) With this single movie, the entire landscape of animation was altered, for a time.


*”Don’t panic; panic is counter-productive.” Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Context is everything.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre 2017

Standard

By Scott Ross

The movies and other video items I watched (or, in rare cases, went out to see) during the year just passed.
BOLD: Denotes very good… or at least, better-than-average.
BOLD+Underscore: A personal favorite.



Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen

Spectre 
(2015) I don’t quite know why there’s been so little love for the 24th Bond. True, it’s no Skyfall — what is? Some people I know disliked the central premise. Others think the Daniel Craig titles have turned 007 from a dashing, erudite figure into a thug: M’s “blunt instrument.” And while I have a particular fondness for Roger Moore as Bond (his was the first Bond I saw in a theatre) I admire the Craigs more than any others in the series apart from the early Connerys and the Timothy Daltons. Craig also comes closest to resembling the Hoagy Carmichael Fleming prototype. On its own terms, the picture seemed to me exciting, thematically dark in a way that appeals to me, and stylishly (and occasionally, beautifully) made.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) One of my five favorite pictures, and which I haven’t seen on a big screen since 1978. (I don’t count the 1980 Special Edition.)

Guffey at the door F58

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) A favorite comedy, given a rare screening by the Carolina Theatre in Durham.


Some Like it Hot. (1959) Also at the Carolina. My favorite movie. I always see something new in it. This time I focused on Billy Wilder’s astonishing technical achievement in matching Tony Curtis’ lips to Paul Frees’ looping of “Josephine”‘s dialogue.

Some-like-it-hot-screen
New (non-documentary) movies viewed on a big theatre screen:
None. From which you may draw your own conclusions.


Revisited with pleasure
F for Fake (1973) Orson Wellesnon pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”
Absence_of_malice_xlg
Absence of Malice
 (1981) When this Sidney Pollack-directed newspaper drama opened in 1981, it received middling reviews and seemed somehow inconsequential. What a difference 35 years of media consolidation (and deepening personal taste) can make! Those of us who cared about such things knew too many papers, magazines and broadcast stations were in the hands of too few (usually conservative) people. But we had no idea then that, 15 years later, a Democrat would, with his 1996 Telecommunications Act, usher out the flawed but vitally important American free press and replace it, eventually, with a completely corporate, wholly right-wing, one.  For this reason alone, the picture has interest. Seeing it again, however, I was struck by the intelligence of Kurt Luedtke’s dialogue, how skillfully he lays out his narrative, and how deeply satisfying his denouement — which seemed at the time merely clever — really is. That Newman, Field, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Wilford Brimley all give splendid performances is practically a given, and Melinda Dillon is shattering as Newman’s doomed sister; the sequence in which she runs desperately from house to house trying to gather up every copy of a paper carrying a story that will devastate her own life and her brother’s illustrates all too clearly not merely what a staggeringly humane and expressive actor she is, but how badly she has been served by Hollywood in the years since. Which is to say, barely at all.


Black Sunday (1977) An immensely entertaining adaptation of Thomas Harris’ topical thriller about a Black September plot, directed in high style by John Frankenheimer. A vivid relic from the decades before The PATRIOT Act was a gleam in the Deep State’s eye.


Munich (2005) Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s devastating look at the violent reaction of the Israeli Mossad to the killings at the 1972 Olympiad.


Wag the Dog. (1997) It’s almost impossible to reconcile this genuinely funny political satire with the sour conservatism of its screenwriter, David Mamet, the most overrated American playwright of the past 40 years… although the fact it was made during the Clinton era may be a clue.


The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)An effective murder mystery from John Huston and Anthony Veillier out of Phillip MacDonald, burdened by an unnecessary gimmick (guest-stars in heavy makeup) and lumbered as well by its director’s tacit approval of upper-class snobbery and his love of that barbarous tradition, the fox-hunt.


The Third Man. (1949) Graham Greene wrote it. Carol Reed directed it. Anton Karras performed the soon-to-be ubiquitous music. And Orson Welles had what was arguably his best role in a movie not also written by him. The only drawback in one’s thorough enjoyment of this deservedly beloved post-war thriller is knowing the producers wanted James Stewart for the lead. Good as Joseph Cotton is, once you hear that bit of casting-that-might-have-been, it’s almost impossible to refrain from imagining Stewart’s unique delivery every time “Holly Martins” speaks a line.


Hot Millions (1968) A sleeper hit of its year, impossibly dated now in its then-striking use of computer technology, this Peter Ustinov-written comedy starring him and Maggie Smith is a movie that, for me, is a test of potential friendship. If I show it to someone and he or she doesn’t love it too, all bets are off.


Cinderella (Disney, 1950) Remarkably fresh after nearly 70 years, this beguiling rendition of the Perrault fairy tale was a make-or-break project for Disney animation, still struggling to regain its pre-war foothold. And unlike recent Mouse House product, schizophrenically made with one eye on each new heroine’s spunky feminist bona fides and the other on crafting an ageless new “Princess” to add to the lineage, there was no art-by-committee finagling here; generations of girls and boys loved Cinderella for her natural ebullience, her love of animals, and her complete lack of self-pity. (Parenthetical: Several years ago, the “Classical” music critic Lloyd Schwartz quoted a friend who cited “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” as the most frightening song title he’d ever heard. I always think about that when I see the picture.)


Cotton Comes to Harlem(1970)Not as rich as the Chester Himes novel, but an awful lot of fun, with a perfectly cast Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones in Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge and a marvelous score by Galt McDermott.


Mary Poppins (1964) This may have been the first movie I ever almost saw, during the summer following its record-breaking release, which would have put me at around four and a half. I know this because the movie was released in late August, and my sister and I were taken to it at a drive-in. Hence the “ever almost”: I remember only the beginning, and waking up in the back seat when Jane and Michael Banks were being menaced by a snarling dog in an alley. I finally got to see it again when it was reissued in 1973. I liked it then, but love it now in a way few 12 year-olds, even movie-mad pubescents as I was becoming then, ever could.


The Great Race - Lemmon as Fate
The Great Race
(1965) Another favorite of long-standing. Seeing this on television, even on a black-and-white set, in pan-and-scan format, interrupted by commercials and spread out over two consecutive Sunday evenings, delighted me and made me an instant Jack Lemmon freak. The new BluRay edition is stunningly executed.

 

 

 


French Connection II (1975) The rare sequel that succeeds on its own terms; although it was made during the period of John Frankenheimer’s acutest alcoholism it bears his trademark intelligence, verisimilitude and equal care with both action and actors.


Juggernaut (1974) A taut, entertaining thriller directed by Richard Lester concerning a bomb set to destroy a pleasure-liner at sea.


The Front Page (1931) A new Criterion edition, beautifully rendered, of the Lewis Milestone adaptation that shows how cinematic even the earliest talkies could be when handled by a master craftsman.


Robin Hood (Disney, 1973) I loved this when it opened. But then, at 12 I was much less critical.


Death on the Nile (1978) Nowhere near as stylish or accomplished as the Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express which preceded it by four years, yet it holds many pleasures, not least its stellar cast. For a 17-year old nascent gay-boy, seeing both Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury on the big screen was close to Nirvana.


The Seven-Ups (1973) A sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection, directed by that picture’s producer, this tense New York police procedural boasts a splendid central performance by Roy Scheider, a very fine supporting turn by Tony Lo Bianco, and a car chase sequence that, in its grittiness and excitement rivals those in Connection and Bullitt.


Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970) A solid comic Western directed by Don Siegel and with a sharp, leftist screenplay by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10. Shirley MacLaine and Clinton Eastwood would seem to be as mis-matched in life as their characters are here, but they make an awfully good team. Features superb photography by the redoubtable Gabriel Figueroa and a pleasing Morricone score.


The Jungle Book (Disney, 1967) I was the perfect age when this one was released to embrace a new Disney animated feature — I had previously seen both Snow White and Cinderella in re-issue — and I went duly gaga over it. I had the Jungle Book comic (I wore the over off that one through obsessive re-reading), Jungle Book Disneykins figurines from Royal Pudding, Jungle Book temporary tattoos, Jungle Book books, and, of course, the Jungle Book soundtrack album, which I wore to a veritable hockey-puck. My poor parents. Seeing it again in 1990 I was considerably less enthusiastic, but it’s remarkable what a quarter of a century can do for a picture. I still think it’s too self-consciously hip for its own good, especially in Phil Harris’ anachronistic vocal performance, but the character animation seems to me wonderfully expressive, especially that by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who did half the picture by themselves.

The Jungle Book 165.2

The Jungle Book: George Sanders lends both his voice and his physiognomy to Sher Kahn, seen obliquely threatening Sterling Holloway’s Kaa.

The Aristocats (1970) Another I was less critical about when it was new, which seemed a bit bland on video but which now looks awfully good, and that in spite of its borrowings from the infinitely superior 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, transposed to felinity. Not to be confused with The Aristocrats


The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) The pleasures inherent in seeing a relic from the time when even a trifling Western comedy was imbued with deliciously quirky characterizations and witty, fondly observed dialogue (in this case by James Lee Barrett.) It isn’t much, but for the much it isn’t, it’s rather charming.


Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I somehow managed to miss this one until about 15 years ago, when I caught it at an art-house screening. Roman Polanksi’s screenplay (almost reverently faithful to the Ira Levin novel) and direction, the gorgeous cinematography by William A. Fraker and the effective score by Krzysztof Komeda (dead, sadly, within months of its release, this depriving us of a distinctive new compositional voice in movies), combined with the performances by its largely elderly cast and a notably plangent one by the often-insufferable Mia Farrow, make this exercise in stylish, low-key horror among the finest in the genre. What I was unprepared for then was how funny it could be, especially in Ruth Gordon’s knowing performance. “Chalky undertaste” become a running joke between me and my then-boyfriend for months afterward.

Rosmary's Baby large_gordon

Rosemary’s Baby: Polanski’s witty framing of Ruth Gordon,



Theatrical Documentary

I Am Not Your Negro. (2016) What was effective about this meandering and ultimately unsuccessful study of James Baldwin was the many clips of him speaking. But its makers set up a premise — why was Baldwin unable to finish his tripartite memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers? — and then almost immediately abandoned it. A wasted opportunity.


Kedi. (2016) Lovely, affecting movie about the street cats of Istanbul.


Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed. (2004) A timely reminder of a true progressive groundbreaker… who was ultimately screwed by the Democratic Party. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Point of Order! (1964) Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s superb compilation of kinescopes from the Army-McCarthy hearings. Especially relevant in these through-the-looking-glass times, in which liberal Democrats are, inexplicably, behaving in a way that would make Tail-Gunner Joe proud.



Selected Short Subject

Return to Glennascaul (aka, Orson Welles’ Ghost Story, 1953) Despite that second title, it’s not really his; Welles appended cinematic bookends to an atmospheric short picture made by Hilton Edwards.



Made for television

The Epic That Never Was (1965)On the aborted I, Claudius starring Charles Laughton. A British television documentary I first read about around 1974 and which contains all the extant footage shot for the ill-fated 1934 adaptation of the Graves novel. Josef von Sternberg appears, imperiously (and predictably) blaming everyone but himself for the debacle.


W.C. Fields: Straight Up (1986) Robert B. Weide and Ronald J. Fields’ marvelous celebration of the unlikeliest movie star of the 1930s.


The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell (1982) Robert B. Weide again. When this delicious toast to the brothers first appeared in 1982, PBS committed the unpardonable sin of mentioning Woody Allen’s name in its promotional material, causing Allen to pitch a predictable fit and demand that Weide remove his footage. It was put back in for the DVD release, and reveals definitively that nothing was lost by its excision three decades ago. Allen says nothing of importance, makes no profound observations, and adds precisely zero to the critical canon on the team the documentary’s writer Joe Adamson once described as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo.


Citizen Cohn (1992) History as cartoon, supplemented by blatant rip-offs of Tony Kushner.



Television series

I, Claudius (1976) Still powerful, if hampered by being shot on video rather than film, and with a beautifully modulated central performance by Derek Jacobi, who transformed stuttering into an art-form.


Kukla, Fran and Ollie: The Lost Episodes (Volumes I, II and III) One of the loveliest video events of the last few years has been the release of these utterly charming kinescopes by the Burr Tillstrom Trust, which is currently working to restore 700 additional episodes. I don’t know whether today’s children, weaned on CGI and iPhones before they’re out of preschool, have the capacity to respond to the show’s gentle humors, but I would be willing to bet that if you sat a relatively unspoiled five-year-old down in front of these 30-minute charmers, he or she might be hooked for life. It would be pretty to think so.

Kukla_Fran_and_Ollie
The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends 12 full episodes from the late ’60s and early ’70s of that wittiest and most intelligent of American chat-shows. Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett , Mel Brooks, George Burns, Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis fascinate and delight; Groucho Marx banters deliciously with his young goyishe friend; Dick fawns all too fannishly over a smug, queer-baiting Bob Hope; the Smothers Brothers behave strangely (it seems to be a put-on, but of what?) and Woody Allen flaunts his repulsive look and persona. Ruth Gordon and Joe Frazier also show up, as does Rex Reed, bitching rather perceptively about the Academy Awards. Also included is the single most painful interview I’ve ever seen — and surely one of the most awkward Cavett ever conducted — with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, the beautiful but weirdly inarticulate stars of Zabriskie Point.



Seen a second time… and will never see again

The Anderson Tapes. (1971) Still interesting and entertaining but… what was it with Sidney Lumet and stereotyped “fag” characters?


One Day in September (1999) An Oscar winner in the documentary category, this impassioned examination of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics muffs too many facts and, ultimately, sickens the viewer; not in the way the filmmakers hoped, but by exhibiting horrid color photos of the bloodied victims, which, whatever the intention, feels like an act of heartless exploitation.


New to me: Worth the trip
Dominion (2005) This first version of the “prequel” (odious neologism) to The Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader, was completely re-filmed, by Rennie Harlin, whose name is, as it should be, a hiss and a byword.


Moulin Rouge (1952) Visually glorious but dramatically inert. And you can really see what in it inspired Bob Fosse when he made Cabaret. But… was there a less appealing leading actor of the Hollywood Era than Jose Ferrer?


New to Me: More than worth the trip

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
 (2015)I avoided the theatrical release of this one in a manner not unlike my aversion to the first Star Wars picture when I was 16, largely due to my loathing of the Disney Company. But after stumbling across a second-hand Blu-ray copy for an absurdly low price I thought I’d at least give it a spin. To my astonishment, this over-hyped space opera turned out more than well; it nearly obliterated the bad taste left by The Phantom Menace. J.J. Abrams’ direction, focused less on CGI effects than on human beings in conflict with each other and themselves (the latter the only thing Faulkner believed was worth writing about) was both riveting and surprisingly beautiful, and the Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan/Michael Arndt screenplay had pleasing weight and even levity. The only cavil about it is the niggling sense that the new series may be unable to shake replicating the same sort of father/son (or, in this case, grandfather/grandson) adulations and conflicts that powered the Lucas originals. Isn’t there any other plot available in that galaxy?


Across 110th Street (1972) A tough slice of New York life, circa 1971. Adapted by Luther Davis from the equally visceral novel by Wally Ferris, with Anthony Quinn and the great Yaphet Kotto.


Take a Hard Ride (1975)A cheerful, entertaining mix of Western and Blaxploitation, with very likable performances by Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, a fine villainous turn by Lee Van Cleef, an effectively silent Jim Kelly, a reasonably clever script (by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig), good action set-pieces by the director Antonio Margheriti, and a one-of-kind score by Jerry Goldsmith.


Firecreek (1968) A downbeat Western starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda that is, in Calvin Clements’ incisive screenplay, about as despairing of human nature as it’s possible to get without the viewer wanting to slash his or her wrists. A double-feature of this and Welcome to Hard Times could put you in a funk for weeks.


Wrong is Right (1982) While we’re on the topic of press irresponsibility, this Richard Brooks satire of the year following Absence of Malice gleefully exposes, Chayefsky style, the appalling consequences of the electronic media’s love of ratings — a state of affairs being disastrously played out now, from Les Moonves’ giggling admission that the All-Trump-All-the-Time campaign coverage of 2016 was raking in the bucks for CBS to the current, slathering mania of so-called liberals for Russia-Russia-Russia McCarthyism.


The Kremlin Letter (1970) A flop in its day, and roundly panned by Pauline Kael, this John Huston thriller from 1970, imaginatively adapted from the Noel Behn novel by the director and his longtime collaborator Gladys Hill and featuring an absolutely marvelous score by Robert Drasnin is infinitely finer than its detractors would have you believe. The only complaint — and it’s a failure shared by Sidney Lumet in his 1971 version of the rather ingenious Laurence Sanders novel The Anderson Tapes, in his use of Martin Balsam — lies in Huston’s miscasting of the 63-year old George Sanders as a gay spy. The character, as Behn wrote him, is an attractive young man, which makes his position within a group of spectacularly selfish mercenaries eminently explicable. As with Balsam in Anderson, the change is mind-boggling, although the notoriously homophobic Huston is far less offensive in his handling of Sanders than Lumet was with his star. But it is, finally, Richard Boone’s movie, and he makes a meal of it.

The Kremlin Letter 1_613x463

The Kremlin Letter: Richard Boone and Patrick O’Neal

The Night of the Following Day (1969) One of many late-1960s Brando pictures that helped make him box-office poison, this adaptation of a Lionel White thriller boasts an impeccably arranged kidnapping, a very fine performance by Brando, a good one by Pamela Franklin as the victim, and an unequivocally great one by Richard Boone as the most terrifying of the felons. The only sour note is the ending the director (Hubert Cornfield) imposed on it, over his star’s quite reasonable objections.


Rio Conchos (1964) Thanks to these last three pictures I was finally able to comprehend why aficionados love Richard Boone, an actor I had somehow managed to go 56 years without having seen.


Act of Violence (1949)A nicely-observed thriller starring Van Heflin, the young Janet Leigh and a typically stellar Robert Ryan that gets at some dark aspects of World War II mythology and contains one sequence, in which a stalking, menacing Ryan is heard but never seen, that is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.


Westward the Women (1951) An interesting Western variation, about a trail-boss transporting 138 “good women” to California. Expertly directed by William Wellman from a fine Charles Schnee original. Typically strong photography by William C. Mellor, a good central performance from Robert Taylor and an exceptionally vivid one by Hope Emerson make this, if not wholly successful, diverting and markedly original.

Track-of-the-cat-wellman3

William Hopper and Robert Mitchum on the Track of the Cat.

Track of the Cat (1954) One of the strongest, strangest Westerns of the 1950s, beautifully adapted from the psychologically harrowing Walter Van Tillberg Clark novel and spectacularly filmed by William A. Clothier. I think this one ranks as the most pleasing surprise of my cinema year.


Cuba (1979) A fast flop from Richard Lester that is in fact a well-observed look at the events leading up to Castro’s coup, and is infinitely finer than Havana, the terrible 1990 romance from Sidney Pollack. Sean Connery adds his rough charm, Brooke Adams is almost impossibly beautiful, there is also delicious support from Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Alejandro Rey and Lonette McKee, splendid photography by David Watkin, and a memorable score by Patrick Williams.


Rio Lobo (1970) An old-pro’s swan-song. Howard Hawks directed it, John Wayne is the star, Leigh Brackett wrote it (with Burton Wahl), Jack Elam gives juicy support, William A. Clothier shot it, and Jerry Goldsmith scored it. The only complaints I have concern some remarkably bad pulled punches by Wayne. But with a set-up this entertaining, and the stunningly pulchritudinous Jorge Rivero along for the ride, that’s a minor matter indeed.


Cutter’s Way (1981) Critically lauded, half-heartedly marketed and ignored by audiences, this fatalistic drama is one of the last hurrahs of ‘70s era personal filmmaking.


Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (1979) Entirely unnecessary, and hampered by anachronism and a lack of internal logic — people, names and incidents Paul Newman either doesn’t know or is vaguely aware of in the previous picture are revealed or dwelt on at length here — this Richard Lester-directed diversion goes down surprisingly well, abetted by László Kovács’ glorious cinematography, the charming central performances of Tom Berenger and William Katt, and yet another marvelous score by Patrick Williams, one that may stick in your head and which you could find yourself humming passages from for days or even weeks afterward.


The Social Network (2010) Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s take on the birth of Facebook. It’s exceptionally articulate and well-made, with gorgeously muted lighting by Jeff Cronenweth and impeccable performances by Jesse Eisenberg (as Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer. But you will be forgiven for wondering, at the end, what it all meant. At the end, one of the attorneys (Rashida Jones) representing Zuckerberg against the Winklevoss twins says, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You just want to be.” Who the hell did Sorkin think he was kidding with that one?


Up Tight (1968) Jules Dassin’s return to American moviemaking is a spirited “fuck you” to everything the studios, and the audience, held dear.


Paranormal Activity (2007) I generally avoid hand-held camera exercises, but the best and most terrifying sequences in this cleverly conceived and executed horror hit, ingeniously executed by its writer-director Oren Peli for $15,000, are nicely nailed-down. The absolute reality Peli sets up for the picture, and which is perfectly anchored by the performances of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (for whom the movie should have opened doors but, oddly, did not) makes the periodic scares that much more effective, leading to a genuinely shocking finale.


Super 8 (2011) J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.

Super 8 Joel Courtney - 04

Super 8: Joel Courtney as the Abrams stand-in.



New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! (1966) Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.


Journey into Fear. (1943) What’s good of Orson Welles’ direction is overwhelmed by what’s bad of Norman Foster’s.


Carlton-Brown of the F.O. (1959) Middling political satire from Ealing.


The Crimson Kimono. (1959) Surprisingly unsubstantial to have come from Samuel Fuller.


Where Were You Went the Lights Were Out? (1968) Fitfully amusing blackout comedy starring Doris Day and Robert Morse that betrayed its French farce stage origins in the less ingenious second half.


Shalako (1968) The short Louis L’Amour novel was better, and more successful.



The Summing-Up
So. Some mediocrities, but no real dogs this year, which was nice. As Pauline Kael once observed: Life’s too short to waste time on some stinky movie.

Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross


Grateful thanks to my good friend Eliot M. Camarena for enlightening my movie year, and special thanks to him for Act of Violence, The List of Adrian Messenger, Moulin Rouge, Point of Order, Up Tight, Westward the Women, and especially The Kremlin Letter and Track of the Cat. Eliot is one of the sanest, most politically astute people I know, and his recommendations are not to be taken lightly.

Unsound Design: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971/2001)

Standard

Bedknobs poster MPW-49141
By Scott Ross

The 2001 restoration of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) raises some interesting, and unsettling, questions, about the process.

Even when exceptional care and devotion are lavished on a movie, as with David Lean’s 1989 “director’s cut” of Lawrence of Arabia, some of the results may be less than felicitous. Lean had second thoughts, for some inscrutable reason, about a single line in the Michael Wilson-Robert Bolt screenplay spoken by Peter O’Toole, and his revision completely reversed its meaning.

General Allenby: You’re the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met!
Lawrence: Leave me alone! […]
Allenby: Well, that’s a feeble thing to say.
Lawrence: I know I’m not ordinary.
Allenby: That’s not what I’m saying…
Lawrence: All right! I’m extra ordinary! What of it?

In 1989, Lean re-jiggered that loaded adjective to a mere “extraordinary.”

The difference? Only the world.

Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lawrence was eviscerated, both at the time of its release and for later reissue. By linking the two I am certainly not suggesting that one is any way the equal of the other. Bedknobs is a pleasant, if somewhat derivative, fantasy musical with engaging performers and a charming Sherman Brothers score, while Lawrence is one of the supreme glories of the English-speaking cinema. Where the two intersect is in their shared histories of imbecilic, ruinous wholesale cuts for no reason other than commerce. Where their revivals differ is in the quality of the restoration process itself.

When Lean required lines to be dubbed onto found footage with no soundtrack, he not only called upon as many of his original cast as were still alive and able; he also recorded the lines with an ear to matching the original on-set recording as much as he did to replicating the actual timbres of the much younger actors on-screen. Lean seems, puzzlingly, virtually alone in this. In nearly every other large-scale restoration of its kind (Spartacus in particular comes to mind, with its visually and aurally flawed restoration of the infamous “snails and oysters” sequence) the ambient sound of the newly dubbed lines in no way matches what was originally recorded. How was Lean able to do that which no one else either cares to, knows how to, or is, seemingly, physically capable? How did Columbia Pictures re-create the sound quality of 1962?

I don’t know the name of, and have never been able to track down, the specific sound recording system Walt Disney and his company employed from the 1950s to the ’70s, any more than I can identify the superb system employed by Warner Bros. from the 1940s on to, at least, the late 1960s. (Warners originally used Vitaphone for their talkies, but that recording system had long since passed by the time of The Maltese Falcon.) But one has only to listen with half an ear to the soundtrack of any film from either studio from those years to appreciate the crystal clarity of the reproduction.* Were these sound designs deemed antiquated at some point, perhaps with the creation of newer microphones and tape systems, the original equipment junked? Or is there some other, even more technically complicated reason for the discrepancy? Why, so often, in movies and on CD, does the much-vaunted digital process pale next to the allegedly “inferior” sound recording of analog? Why is Mono sometimes fuller, sharper and clearer than Stereo?

Whatever the reason, in the case of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, all of the re-dubbed scenes are reproduced, not with the striking crispness of the original but with the infinitely more casual, and muffled, make-do of our current era. Of course I know that sound recorded on the set with its unique, ambient quality, can seldom be replicated in a studio; it’s why, whatever the time period, you can nearly always tell which lines have been over-dubbed later. (Although, in his Hollywood pictures anyway, Orson Welles was especially good at matching.) Indeed, in the case of musicals, pre-recorded vocals seldom replicate live sound. But the absolutely dead sound the current Disney engineers retro-fitted onto this movie is matched in apathy only by the appalling voice work provided by the actors attempting to double for David Tomlinson and Tessie O’Shea, the latter of whose accent now fluctuates wildly over the British Isles, like a berserk vocalic Norman chasing after an elusive, mute Saxon zombie.†

Bedknobs - A Step vi728014361

Apprentice witch Angela Lansbury and her first broom, in a still of the “A Step in the Right Direction” number. Any resemblance between it and “A Spoonful of Sugar” is purely intentional.

Any number of additional ironies attached themselves to this one: The original cut of the movie ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes and was intended as one of the last of the big “road-show” spectacles of the era. Unbelievably, Walt Disney Productions planned its premier at Radio City Music Hall in, it seems, complete ignorance of that tatty but venerable establishment’s inviolable rule that pictures which accompany its live stage shows be of no more than 2 hours in length. Disney exceeded that demand, and duly sheared 30 minutes, not merely for Radio City but the movie’s general release as well, losing several musical numbers and so much dialogue that what was left was difficult to follow — surely a disastrous outcome for a fantasy aimed as much at children as their parents. The studio further compounded this minor obscenity by utterly eviscerating what remained for a late-’70s reissue: 139 minutes in 1971 became first 117 and, finally, a paltry 99 in 1979. Many of the dialogue sequences restored had lost their soundtrack, hence the (again, execrable) re-dubbing. And in a final (and, it seems, irreversible) irony, the very impetus for the restoration, bringing Angela Lansbury’s “A Step in the Right Direction” number, extant on the 1971 soundtrack album, back to the movie, was thwarted; it has disappeared and was, presumably, destroyed(!)

bedknobs_001 vintage_vinyl_

The 1971 soundtrack LP. Is it me, or does this look like Amsel art? Note the distinctive, Mucha-like stars.

I was young enough in 1971 (10, if you’re morbidly interested) to love even the truncated original, although I loved it less a few months later, on reading Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, which bear very little resemblance to the movie on which they were, exceedingly loosely, based. Best to think of the film, as with the more vaunted (and popular) Mary Poppins, as variation on a theme.

My invoking Poppins is not coincidental. Not only was the same creative team responsible for Bedknobs, from the screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi and the director Robert Stevenson to the song-writing Shermans, but both narratives involved magical (and musical, if somewhat starchy) spinsters, contain animated/live action sequences, and feature Tomlinson, here promoted from secondary lead to co-star. (It’s tempting, if fruitless, to imagine the movie with Lansbury squired by Ron Moody, who had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict.) But where Poppins is light on its feet, emotionally plangent and possessed of a seemingly effortless charm, Bedknobs is, despite its magical elements, more earth-bound, less felicitous, and in general has less sentimental resonance than an average re-run of Lassie.

Bedknobs Shermans and leads

Lansbury and Tomlinson, flanked by Robert Sherman (left) and Richard Sherman (right.)

And yet… the restored Bedknobs and Broomsticks has much to recommend it, enough to overcome even the dreadfulness of the new dubbing. First, the presence of Angela Lansbury. This almost criminally under-utilized performer was given her finest and most taxing roles not in film (her acid-etched portrait of mother-love gone mad in The Manchurian Candidate excepted), in which she began, or on television, where she reigned for some time in the 1980s, but on Broadway. Bedknobs represents her only real, extensive opportunity to shine on the big screen, not merely as the star, but as a musical star, and is, perforce, eminently treasurable.

BEDKNOBS-17-465x303 Angie and children

Lansbury with her surprisingly likable juvenile co-stars: Roy Snart, Cindy O’Callaghan and Ian Weighill.

Roy Snart, Ian Weighill and Cindy O’Callaghan, the Cockney children Lansbury’s apprentice-witch is saddled with, are exceptionally well-cast, believable both as siblings and as War orphans, and never, as Disney tots alas tend, cloying. Tomlinson clearly had a high old time of it playing a rogue who would have given his own Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins the jim-jams, and Sam Jaffe makes a small repast of his appearance as the slightly sinister Bookman. Roddy McDowall, in his relatively brief but cunningly executed role as a nakedly avaricious country vicar, is especially welcome.; the restoration gives him greater prominence, which is useful, as the truncated version left one scratching one’s head, wondering why he was there at all. If only the great Welsh music-hall performer Tessie O’Shea, seen only in dialogue sequences as a firm but kindly postmistress, had been given a dance or two!

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Roddy McDowall as the wonderfully-named Rowan Jelk.

Sam Jaffe.

Sam Jaffe.

The true movie aficionado will also spot, in tiny roles — some indeed mere glimpses — beloved character actors such as the inimitably high-voiced Arthur Malet (Mr. Dawes, Jr. of Poppins), Reginald Owen (Admiral Boom of same), Cyril Delevanti (the beautiful old poet Nono of Night of the Iguana), and, somewhat shockingly, Hank Worden, barely noticeable, singing as part of the seaside town’s Old Home Guard. The twinned live action/animation sequences, directed by the often brilliant Disney veteran Ward Kimball, are variable. The first, in which Lansbury et al. find themselves in an island lagoon, is charm itself. Crashing an underwater tea-dance, Lansbury and Tomlinson perform a delightfully — there’s no other word for it — fluid duet, in a Sherman Brothers number that is quite obviously the precursor and onlie begettor of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea,” cleverly orchestrated by Irwin Kostel in patented 1940s ballroom fashion.

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in "Beautiful Briny Sea."

Once more, with alliteration: Lansbury and Tomlinson in “Beautiful Briny Sea.”

The second is more problematic. The Shermans expected the follow-up sequence on the Island of Naboombu, wherein Tomlinson attempts to make off with the animated lion king’s enchanted medallion, to be musical, and penned a sleight-of-hand routine for the versatile actor. What the filmmakers presented them instead was a non-musical, mildly diverting, football game. (Helpfully if inappropriately translated for American audiences as “soccer.”) If you stop to analyze the set-up, you’re lost: Why would these animals, whether immortal or merely the descendants of the enchanted originals, and who explicitly bar humans from their refuge, even know what football is, let alone be mad for it? Why, indeed, are they dressed contemporaneously? Logic takes as much an un-jolly holiday as music here.

Bedknobs - Tomlinson and King

bedknobs portobello

Far better, and nearly worth the entire restoration, is the preceding, and greatly extended, “Portobello Road” dance sequence, which Pauline Kael, while deploring the cuts, enthused over. Here, the faded work-prints were beautifully enhanced, especially in the delightful Jamaican section. Now at last that Kostel-arranged Overture makes sense, as we finally understand why the master orchestrator spiced it throughout with brief, ethnically derived riffs and quotations. It is as if MGM, in order to squeeze in an extra screening or two, had cut the “Broadway Melody” ballet from the release print of Singin’ in the Rain.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks_Title Card_Sherman Bros

The Sherman’s credit on David Jonas’ distinctive, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits.

Watching this extended edition of the movie, you understand just how badly the Shermans were represented by the 1971 truncation. Doubly sad, as it was in a sense the brothers’ last hurrah for Disney, and that the movie, even at just under 2 hours, was a financial disappointment: $17 million domestic rentals on a $20 million budget. Fortunately, and somewhat balancing the ultimate loss of “A Step in the Right Direction,” the restoration reinstates the wistful Lansbury ballad “Nobody’s Problems,” an all-too-brief reprise of a longer, and un-filmed, number for the children.

It’s far too easy for cultural critics, especially today, to cynically dismiss the Shermans, but this snobbery does not admit of their innate and almost profligate musicality, their respect for narrative and characterization, and their sophisticated rhyming which is, somehow, both comprehensible to children and satisfying to adults simultaneously.

You try that trick.

I’ll time you.


*Listen to any Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies short from the ’40s and ’50s for a prime exemplar.

†I wonder if the people involved in this miserable venture were aware that nearly the entire dialogue soundtrack of the 1960 Swiss Family Robinson was re-dubbed after principal photography, due to terrible aural conditions on Tobago during the filming — and you’d never guess unless you knew. Even granted all the actors in that one were still very much alive, if it could be done so well then, why is it so damn difficult now?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Standard

By Scott Ross

John Frankenheimer’s best movie, a dazzling adaptation of Richard Condon’s dark satire on American geo-politics; the adaptation is by George Axelrod at his wittiest and most concise. Essentially, the narrative is a reiteration of the old trope that the extreme right and extreme left of the 1950s eventually meet in the middle. But the execution of the material, the expert manipulation before and behind the camera, the stunning hints of incest and the black-comedy send-up of Joe McCarthy make this perhaps the ne plus ultra of early 1960s American cinema.

Lansbury keeps an eye on McCarthy-like hubby James Gregory. Note that she is not watching him, but how he is coming across over the box.

Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury have their finest roles, and Janet Leigh isn’t far behind. (Does she really meet Sinatra on that train by accident, or is she his American control?) David Amram composed the effective score, which opens with one of the finest main title themes in any American movie. With Laurence Harvey, Henry Silva, James Gregory, plus John McGiver, dry as sherry, as that political oxymoron, a warmhearted liberal Republican.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross