Armchair Theatre Quarterly Report: January – March 2019

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By Scott Ross

Nothing I’ve seen so far this year has elicited in me a great desire to write a full review. Hence this installment of minis.

The Man from Larrabee (1955)
The sixth and final collaboration between James Stewart and the director Anthony Mann is a solid adult Western, although not a patch on their best work together. It’s based on a well-regarded novel by Thomas T. Flynn, originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, and with a screenplay credited to Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. Burt was a frequent contributor to Stewart’s splendid, short-lived radio series The Six-Shooter; Yordan was one of the busiest fronts of the blacklist era, but as he claimed authorship of any number of disputed scripts whose actual writers later challenged his participation, it’s anyone’s guess whether he wrote a word of this one, or who else might have. The credit itself is less urgent than that the material begins promisingly and, while never less than intelligent, devolves irredeemably into melodrama — probably because there is simply too much plot for one brief movie to contain. Stewart, seeking the seller of rifles to Apaches (and whose Cavalry brother has died as a result) finds himself at loggerheads with an isolated town’s wealthiest and most powerful family of ranchers, led by Donald Crisp, secretly going blind and haunted by recurring dreams in which a stranger murders his arrogant son (Alex Nicol). His foreman (Arthur Kennedy), meanwhile, struggles to make his worth clear to the old man while battling the owner’s spoiled, impulsive progeny. And that’s not to mention the son’s fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell), nor Crisp’s nearest rival (Aline MacMahon), who has an agenda of her own. You see what I mean about the overlarded plot? Stewart, Crisp, Kennedy and MacMahon acquit themselves admirably, Jack Elam shows up as a villainous ranch-hand, Charles Lang’s Technicolor and CinemaScope photography is sumptuous, George Duning contributed a fine score, and Mann’s direction is both taut and expansive. Unfortunately, their combined efforts don’t add up to much. Interestingly, Mann later began another Stewart Western, the deeply disappointing Night Passage and quit, feeling — quite rightly — that the thing was “trash.” Mann was entirely correct; had the finished movie hewn closer to Norman A. Fox’s very effective short novel, it might have been an ideal picture for him, and for Stewart.

Bend of the River (1953)
This one is everything The Man from Laramie isn’t. Based on the 1950 novel Bend of the Snake by Bill Gulick (whose later The Hallelujah Train is perhaps the wittiest and most delightful Western novel ever written) it features a finely-wrought screenplay by the redoubtable Borden Chase, stunning cinematography by Irving Glassberg of the Oregon wilderness (the glimpses of the Mt. Hood area are especially mouth-watering), a rousing Hans J. Salter score, tight Anthony Mann direction, a compelling story and terrific central performances by James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy — although the latter plays what amounts to a precursor of his The Man from Laramie character. The picture concerns the efforts of a former border-raider turned scout (Stewart) to supply a wagon-train of homesteaders with the crucial provisions they need to survive their first Oregonian winter. Somehow that précis makes the thing sound deadly, but it isn’t; the movie is done with the intelligence, humor and dramatic integrity that mark Gulick’s work, and at 91 minutes it’s self-contained and compelling. There’s a spectacularly effective climactic gun battle, and the fine supporting cast includes Julie Adams, Jay C. Flippen, Rock Hudson, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano and Frances Bavier. In such company you don’t even mind the presence of Stepin Fetchit.

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The Hot Rock (1972)
William Goldman, a longtime admirer of Donald E. Westlake’s comic caper novels, wrote this one, a transliteration of the first in Westlake’s ingenious Dortmunder series (originally planned, curiously, as a “Parker” novel for the author’s grittier non de plume Richard Stark.) Goldman’s screenplay is a model of adaptation: Everything that makes the book work is there, perfectly trimmed to screen-time, with very little interpolation from the screenwriter, and no fat whatsoever. Goldman’s script deviates in minor ways, and they only add to the pleasure: First by giving Dortmunder an ulcer — a comic invention I’m surprised Westlake never thought of — and second by letting his crew emerge triumphant; his ending is so perfectly realized it makes you grin in appreciation. (Although I am not widely read in the Dortmunder novels, those I have assayed invariably end with the team losing its illegal quest in some ironic manner. Goldman upends this, and you’re grateful for the deviation.) The entire picture, wittily directed by Peter Yates, generates goodwill; you know from the first scene that you’re in good hands, and that allows you to relax and enjoy the ride. It helps too that the characters are comically idiosyncratic but never cute or self-consciously “wacky.” The plot concerns the theft, for an African delegate (Moses Gunn, wry and very funny) of a fabulous gem; once the caper is pulled off, it runs into seemingly endless complications. Robert Redford is Dortmunder, too smart for his makeshift crew of hapless would-be jewel thieves but too desperate, and maybe too essentially decent, to do any better. His cohorts are George Segal, Ron Leibman and Paul Sand; Charlotte Rae has a good cameo as Leibman’s mother(!), with whom he listens to race track recordings; and Zero Mostel makes a kosher feast of his role as a duplicitous lawyer (or am I being redundant?) whom Goldman slyly promotes from the Sand character’s uncle to his father. Quincy Jones composed a spritely earworm of a main theme in march cadence, and the picture is one of those time-capsule movies that vividly capture the New York of the period: For example, during an unsettlingly vertiginous open helicopter trip (Leibman says he was terrified) we catch long glimpses of the World Trade Center, then nearing completion. Surprisingly, considering Redford’s ascendancy at the time, The Hot Rock lost money on its release. Seeing it now, you can’t imagine why; it’s one of the cheeriest caper movies ever made, sunny and amusing. Watching it makes you feel happy and refreshed — good all over.

 

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True Crime
(1999)
There was an interesting movie in the journalistic story behind this one, but it was completely transformed between reality and realization, and not I think for the better. I presume the people who made it (Clint Eastwood, the director and star; the credited screenwriters, Larry Gross and Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff — as well as Andrew Klaven, on whose novel it was based) saw the story of a dogged journalist’s painstaking investigation of a miscarriage of justice as too prosaic and mundane: There was only one man’s freedom at stake, after all. The stakes, so beloved of the Hollywood suits, were duly raised, the central premise made more urgent by an innocent man’s impending execution for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s a schizophrenic movie; its central narrative is compelling and often defeats second-guessing, yet its arc is itself a cliché and the picture is cavalier in its sudden devolution into superman-type heroics and an anguished inner-city grandmother’s instant conversion to Eastwood’s comic sidekick. At the same time, the filmmaking is often so assured the damn thing almost works. Eastwood, however, was far too mature at this point in his career to play the serial cocksman, and the sight of him with his shirt off is no longer arousing — it’s distracting. If he wasn’t also the director, it would even seem cruel: You’re not enjoying the sensuality, you’re counting the folds in his flesh. And at 69 the former sex symbol looks years older. If the women with whom he consorts were as superannuated as he is, there might have been some poignancy to the enterprise. As it stands, his womanizing is just embarrassing. Eastwood’s character, a once-celebrated reporter named Steve Everett, behaves as if he considers himself catnip to the distaff. This too could carry a certain frisson, if the movie made us aware of how hollow that conceit is. Instead, the young women he hits on, even as they’re turning down his threadbare seductions, grin at him as if they’re flattered by the old rake’s attention. The actor had also, at that point, lost so much of the almost feline grace he’d exhibited in his prime that when he walks across a room you’re aware that the parts no longer move the way they once did. It happens to us all, of course, but most of us aren’t operating under the merciless glare of arc-lights and widescreen cameras. There’s some good acting here, however, especially by James Woods as Everett’s indulgent editor; Denis Leary, subdued for once as the supervisor itching for a reason to fire Everett; Lisa Gay Hamilton as the grieving wife of the accused; Diane Venora as Everett’s long-suffering mate; Hattie Winston as the grandmother of a deceased felon; Bernard Hill as a prison warden; Michael Jeter as a weasely, unreliable witness; Frances Fisher as an angry D.A.; and little Francesca Eastwood as Everett’s tiny daughter. As the condemned man, Isaiah Washington is astonishing. He’s so good, so sure-footed in his emotional responses to the insupportable, you wish the movie that surrounds him was as deep as his characterization; his reaction to seeing his young daughter for the last time is raw and unforgettable. True Crime isn’t a disaster by any means, but it’s sure an oddity.

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

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W (2008)
Oliver Stone was, ludicrously, slanged in 2008 for not making George W. Bush more of a caricature, and for sympathizing with his central character. That succumbing to the former is the sign of a hack or a satirist (all too often the same thing) and that embrace of the latter is the primary job of a dramatist does not seem to have occurred to the partisans among Stone’s critics. To take on the first accusation: How much more may an artist caricaturize a man who is already a walking self-parody? Stone’s Bush, as written by the scenarist Stanley Weiser and enacted by the redoubtable Josh Brolin is, it seems to me, George W. to the life: Belligerent, untutored, ill-informed, appallingly ignorant — narcissistic in the proscribed macho manner of the Texas playboy who has seldom, if ever, heard the word “no” and been forced to comply with it. To address the second allegation: Although Bush as a man is not as complex as the 37th President of the United States, nor as essentially and tragically bifurcated, this indictment was also leveled at Stone in 1995 when Nixon premiered, and was no more legitimate then. Again, only a parodist or a creative hack reduces his subject to abject villainy. Was Shakespeare traduced for locating the humanity in both Caesar and Brutus? Do we not in part respond to Citizen Kane precisely because Orson Welles offered him in more than a single dimension? And while W is not as ultimately plangent, or as moving, as Nixon, it is certainly nothing to whinge or sneer at. It encapsulates and anatomizes its subject in sharp and often very amusing vignettes that hint strongly at the central emptiness within its eponymous subject. Is that, somehow, the same as bestowing laurels on him? The only area in which I think Stone errs is in his and Weisner’s conception of George H.W., and in their casting of James Cromwell, who neither looks nor sounds like the elder Bush. If any member of the dynasty depicted here deserves vilification, surely it is Bush Senior, that unrepentant liar, conscienceless CIA operative (who claimed, like Nixon, not to remember where he was on the day Kennedy was murdered) and un-indicted war criminal. Ellen Burstyn comes off much better as Barbara Bush, but then, the woman herself scarcely seemed to deserve the unholy brood she gave birth to. Richard Dreyfuss makes an appropriately serpentine Dick Cheney, alternately sneering and bullying. (Although he and Stone apparently differed on the characterization.) The always splendid Scott Glenn gives a good account of Donald Rumsfeld, Toby Jones provides a correspondingly fine embodiment of the Pecksniffian Karl Rove, and Stacey Keach is fascinatingly ambiguous in a role that was conceived as a composite of several of Bush’s spiritual advisors… whose collective failure with their charge is all too obvious and instructive.

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

Snowden
Snowden
(2016)
One of the least seen of Oliver Stone’s important pictures, Snowden sits on the shelf with the writer-director’s explorations of American governmental power (JFK, Nixon, W.) and, like Nixon, is both intelligently written and surprisingly moving. Perhaps audiences in 2016 already thought they knew the Snowden story; if they were consuming the Western corporate media’s coverage of his announcement, they didn’t, and don’t. Stone and his co-scenarist, Kieran Fitzgerald, depict Edward Snowden as an exceptionally bright young man of conventional conservative bent, “patriotic” in the way of so many American youths who have incorporated the deliberate inculcation of their public schools, a passive press and all-too active governmental indoctrination into their view of the world. His gradual awakening to the means by which — and the lengths to which — his employers are able, and willing, to go to infiltrate every aspect of his fellow Americans’ lives, and his determination to expose both, form the core of the narrative. (The screenplay was based in part on The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. That Harding has since allowed the Clinton machine’s absurd claims of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election to unhinge him completely should, one supposes, not mitigate his former good work.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as the eponymous anti-hero, and however much one might deplore the reactive manner of Snowden’s thinking, Gordon-Levitt’s performance conveys the young man’s basic decency and kindness as well as his slow awakening in wholly explicable terms. It was the role many of us who have admired this gifted young actor since his sitcom years were waiting for, and it’s a genuine pity that so few have seen it, and that he received no major award nominations for it. Shailene Woodley is equally fine as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, as are the superb Melissa Leo as the documentarian Laura Poitras and Zachary Quinto as the irreplaceable (and un-repressible) Glenn Greenwald. Nicolas Cage plays a character suggested by the estimable former National Security analyst — and fellow whistle-blower — Bill Binney, and Snowden himself appears briefly at the end of the picture. Craig Armstrong’s musical score is a strong asset, as is Anthony Dod Mantle’s rich cinematography and the kinetic editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy. The ultimate willingness of one so young to leave behind his life, love and family in the furtherance of an ideal becomes quietly devastating, and for this, Stone is to be commended. Yet it is a measure of the contempt in which Oliver Stone is held by the government stenographers who now comprise the ranks of corporate journalism that a movie as vital and important as Snowden received far less press than a lumbering exercise like Any Given Sunday. And it is equally illustrative of where the American movie audience is now that Sunday was a hit domestically, Snowden a flop.


Born on the Fourth of July
(1988)
I missed this picture when it was new, owing partly to my perpetual aversion to its star, but had I seen it in 1988 I suspect I would have appreciated it more. I had attempted, a few years before, to get through Ron Kovic’s memoir, but was defeated by its grim and seemingly unremitting horror. Now that I have read it, Oliver Stone’s adaptation (written with Kovic) almost seems to affirm some of the criticisms often leveled at his work as sensationalist and excessive. In the main I do not agree with the opprobrium with which Stone is so frequently assaulted, but Born on the Fourth of July all too obviously embodies those faults others — admittedly, and largely, his political opponents —invariably see in Stone. Kovic’s book is so vivid, incendiary and felt, it scarcely required embellishments like the wholly fictitious Kara Sedgwick character, or Tom Cruise’s romantic run-through-the-rain-to-the-prom. It most especially did not need the sequence in which he and Willem Dafoe (in, again, a role for whom there is no antecedent in Kovic’s life) roll around on the Mexican sand and argue over whose claims of baby-killing are the most true. Even such incidents as Kovic’s shattering his leg and nearly losing it are turned, by Stone, into vulgar, overstated show-pieces (he was merely exercising his useless limbs at home, not parading around in a demented attempt to prove he could walk) and when, at the climax, Kovic is beaten by cops at the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, Stone cheats fact by turning it into Kovic’s heroic last-stand when the reality — he was brutally assaulted by para-military creeps who, when they finally realized he was, as he’d been telling them, a wounded vet, behaved with shame-faced obsequiousness — was so much more inherently and honestly dramatic. Wouldn’t that make a better sequence than presenting Kovic as storming (or anyway, wheeling) back into the convention hall to “take” it, a cinematic fantasy that manifestly did not occur? That sort of phony uplift is contemptible, and beneath a man of Stone’s gifts. I will grant that the picture brings up a subject Americans do not like to address, and which Kovic’s book repeatedly rubs our noses in: The sudden emasculation of the sexually incapacitated. That such lifelong impotence is routinely visited on one so young is one of the great, unspoken tragedies of war. Cruise is, as usual, insufferably over-dramatic, an amateur actor who only knows how to perform when the scene calls for overt, hectoring anger. One of the few unadulterated pleasures of the picture is the performance of Raymond J. Barry as Kovic’s gentle, shattered father, unable to cope with the wreck his country has made of his child. There’s dignity in that, and quiet honesty. It’s something Born on the Fourth of July could use more of.

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Lord Love a Duck (1966)
George Axelrod and Larry H. Johnson’s determinedly strange adaptation of a little-known novel by Al Hine is the last thing in “mod” era outré. The great Roddy McDowall, nearing 40 but playing — somehow believably — 18 is Alan “Mollymauk” Musgrave, a young genius and idiosyncratic non-conformist, who plays everyone around him against each other (and themselves) in furtherance of the attainment of the vacuous desires of his unrequited inamorata Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld). Axelrod threw all of his bitterness at then-current California popular culture onto the screen, with results that are less riant than determinedly, even dementedly, weird. Thus we get health fads, psycho-babble and smother-love (all embodied by Ruth Gordon), drive-in religious services, physical culture, fly-by-night motion picture production, permissive educational policy (Harvey Korman, in the movie’s funniest performance, is the easily-manipulated, shame-facedly lecherous high school principal), the pathos of the almost-was actress as hopeless lush (Lola Albright as Weld’s mother), cliquish snobbery and, for good measure, repressed and guilty incestuous craving (Max Showalter, giggling guiltily as her father). It doesn’t really hang together, and it’s not nearly either as hilarious nor as poignant as Axelrod seemed to think it was, but it has cult status, and if you’re at all interested in what was happening to the movies in that uncertain period between buttoned-down suppression and full-scale candor, it demands a viewing. Interestingly, Axelrod intended us to hear McDowall screaming “Fuck you!” at his captors during the bizarre climax but was overruled. The shattering of that taboo had to wait another few years, for Robert Altman to include a football game ad-lib by John Schuck in his final cut of MASH.

 

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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The Legend of Hell House (1973)

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By Scott Ross

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When at 16, I made the acquaintance of Stephen King, with ‘Salem’s Lot, I enjoyed it enormously for what it was. But the book paled next to Richard Matheson’s 1970 masterpiece Hell House. Encountered at 15, the novel took the top of my head off, what with its classic haunted manse, its bickering specialists in the occult, its periodic supernatural explosions and, especially (Oh, my God!) that obscene crucifix in the chapel. I read ‘Salem’s Lot again a few years ago and found it more or less anemic — very young work. Yet a similar revisit to Hell House a year ago proved to me that Matheson’s novel is one of true standard-bearers of the genre. While appreciating that one can never experience a cinematic or literary (or indeed any actual) shock with anything approaching the power of the initial encounter, re-reading this quintessential spook story convinces me that Matheson’s are the real goods — which on a second helping may pale slightly, but will never pall.

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The surprisingly cheesy, morbid poster for a notably subtle horror movie.

The inevitable movie, scripted by Matheson, is — especially considering the American International pedigree conferred on it in the person of its producer, James H. Nicholson — remarkably understated, hewing to the novel in most particulars (minus, naturally, that priapic crucifix, which was no doubt the first element of the narrative to go by the wayside) and eschewing piled-on atrocity; what is only sensed is far more unsettling than what is exhibited on-screen. The only curious aspect of the film is its misleading title. The legend of the Belasco mansion, commonly called “Hell House,” occurs well before the events depicted in the story, during the satanically sybaritic reign of its owner… and in its aftermath, 25 years before Hell House, when the first group of researchers is torn to tatters by Emeric Belasco’s vengeful shade. I can only assume that title was an imposition by schlockmeister Nicholson.

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Pamela Franklin in a trance-state. Note the ectoplasm.

Credit must be given to Nicholson, however, for uniformly perfect casting: Pamela Franklin, compassionate as she is tremulous as the mental medium; Roddy McDowall, in his histrionic prime as the tormented sole survivor of the otherwise demolished previous psychic detective team; the splendid (and criminally under-used) Clive Revill, tightly-coiled and chilly to the touch as the all too analytical parapsychologist; and Gayle Hunnicutt, lustrously beautiful and eminently shatterable as his somewhat neglected wife. (Sadly, the producer died before his movie’s premiere.)

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Rational science, embodied by Clive Revill, confronts spiritualism in the reluctant person of Roddy McDowall. Note the slightly distorted composition and the oppositional spaces the actors occupy.

Transposing the action of the novel from New England to Great Britain and working with what is fairly obviously a limited budget, the director, John Hough (a minor name, that) and his gifted cinematographer Alan Hume pile on the atmosphere, surrounding the actors in a tenebrosity thick enough to cut and relieved only by restricted islands of murky light. The characters are isolated, not merely by their positions in the house but by their lonely, secretive personas, emphasized by Hume’s photographing them through a variety of distorting lenses. The disconcerting electronic music of Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson also adds to the growing sense of unease; it’s not, strictly speaking, a musical score so much as an unnerving soundscape highlighted by an ethereal rhythmic beating effect, like the incessant throb of a giant, unseen heart. (The heart of Hell House itself?)

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Gayle Hunnicutt in an uncharacteristically suggestive mood. For the house itself, outré sexuality is the norm.

Despite the economically limited scope, the movie contains strikingly few risible moments, such as the patently phony cat attack on Franklin*; the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail was done better, and on a smaller budget. We miss, too, Matheson’s extended sequence of the Revill character being dragged to his death, here reduced to a more standard shock image as Hunnicutt and McDowall discover his bloody corpse. (The Franklin figure’s stunning death in the novel, courtesy of that profane rood, is also omitted.) But for the time, and considering the niggardly budget, the finale, and the dinner scene in which Revill is attacked by ordinarily inanimate objects in the dining room, are remarkably well done, and genuinely frightening. Generally, however, and unlike today’s CGI-obsessed (and correspondingly both lazy and audience-pandering) filmmakers, the scenarist and director emphasize the human aspects of the story: McDowall’s refusal to open his senses to the house; Revill’s preoccupied arrogance; Hunnicutt’s neglected state, which leaves her dangerously vulnerable to erotic possession; Franklin’s deep belief in her abilities, in its way as presumptuous and wrong-headed as Revill’s deluded rationality. It all leads to McDowall unmasking Belasco, in the movie’s effective, thematically unified and — even if the corporeal demon’s prostheses are perhaps too modern in design — emotionally satisfying climax. (Belasco’s perfectly preserved corpse is “played,” incidentally, by Michael Gough.)

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McDowall in the final, apocalyptic face-off with the shade of Emeic Belasco.

A friend expressed some mild surprise that The Legend of Hell House has not (yet) been, to use an odious term for an odious practice, “re-made.” If (when?) this happens, it follows that story, logic, character and literacy will almost certainly be replaced by narrative indifference, implausibility, cardboard delineation and the usual sour jokes that pass for wit in these sub-literate times. Not to mention teasing, slickly Kubrickian glimpses of sexual pathology, the usual dispiriting over-reliance on wall-to-wall musical scoring and a numbing plethora of computer-driven effects.

Heaven protect us from that Hell.

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*The moronically literal-minded point to the movie’s bookend shots of the black cat outside the Belasco house as a continuity error, forgetting, in their knuckle-headed obsessiveness, that The Legend of Hell House is a ghost story: Earthly logic need not apply. And anyway, who says it’s the same cat?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Unsound Design: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971/2001)

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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 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 what 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.†

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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(!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*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

By the Great Horn Spoon!: The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)

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By Scott Ross

Revisiting a movie one loved as a child is always a risky undertaking, especially when the object is a Disney movie — particularly a Disney movie comedy of the slapstick-happy 1960s. Will it be unbearably coy? Unutterably bland? Unendurably silly? Will the very elements that captured one’s youthful, unformed, imagination now reek of cheap, easy immaturity? Or will a return visit reveal new facets, more resonant with adulthood?

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The remarkable pulchritude of Roddy McDowall in 1967. He never looked better than he did from this period through the mid-1970s.

What a pleasure, then, to revisit The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)! From Ward Kimball’s minimalist, deliciously recherché opening titles to the hilarious climactic bout of fisticuffs, it proves that rare thing: A movie comedy whose tone and style never waver from beginning to end. And for those who, as I do, admire the great Roddy McDowall, the movie provides the additional unalloyed delight of enjoying him near the summit of his attractiveness and personal charm.

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The 1967 release poster captures the style of the narrative and of Ward Kimball’s amusing visual effects.

I first encountered this, and another unusually fine ’60s release, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (and which also more than holds up) on the weekly Disney television showcase around 1970. It was my introduction to McDowall, who almost certainly pinged something resonant in my nascent, pre-pubescent queer-boy radar. A year or two later, I greatly enjoyed reading Sid Fleischman’s 1965 source novel, By the Great Horn Spoon! with its picaresque Wild West narrative and its charmingly sketched illustrations by Eric von Schmidt. What I remember best about the novel (in which Griffin is called Praiseworthy, and Arabella is Master Jack’s aunt rather than, as in the movie, his older sister) is the perilous sea trip around Cape Horn, jettisoned from a film already plot-heavy without that lengthy but informative diversion.

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The movie edition paperback of “By the Great Horn Spoon!”, re-titled to reflect the movie.

The adult viewer of Bullwhip Griffin catches, and savors, the story’s fulsome portrait of the raw San Francisco of 1849; the dime-novel excesses that excite young Jack to head West and inspire him to ascribe outlandish attributes for his butler/companion; the effectively melodramatic George Bruns score; the recurrent narrative ballad by Robert and Richard Sherman, whose charmingly anachronistic melodic provenance seems to be Paul Dresser’s “Over the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”; and spotting the many splendid character actors who provide comic assist. These include Mike Mazurki as the dim-witted Mountain Ox, Harry Guardino as an amiable urban weasel, Liam Redmond’s blustering Captain Swain, Cecil Kellaway’s phlegmatic family retainer, Hermione Baddeley as a slyly avaricious housekeeper, Joby Baker’s cheerful Mexican bandit, Arthur Malet as a nearly toothless recipient of frontier dentistry, John Qualen as a Frisco barber, Doodles Weaver as a bather in a fast sight-gag, Bert Mustin in an amusing bit as a lynching aficionado, and the peerless Richard Haydn as a florid stage actor, a character — and a performer — we only wish had a larger role in the proceedings.

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The splendid Richard Haydn, abetted by McDowall and Bryan Russell.

Bryan Russell, playing young Master Jack, sounds more like a youth from Los Angeles than the scion of Boston nabobs, but he’s a likable presence. (For many years, I misidentified him as Kurt’s brother, an understandable mistake given their similarity of facial characteristics, vocal timbre and boyhood appearances in Disney features.)

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McDowall and Russell in their ubiquitous red dress-shirts.

Karl Malden, an actor for whom I generally have scant use, is cannily employed as the movie’s unstoppable villain, the exuberantly smarmy Judge Higgins. Far better at broad comedy than in his more “distinguished” forays into drama, Malden is most effective when chewing all available scenery, as in his riotously frustrated Archie Lee Meighan in Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll.

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Karl Malden as the slippery Judge Higgins. The onlookers are appropriately dubious.

And while she’s peripheral to much of the movie’s action, Suzanne Pleshette is her standard delight as Jack’s sister. No shrinking Boston violet, this Arabella; she’s as amused at as she is appalled by her profligate grandfather’s final joke of leaving her penniless, makes her confident way in San Francisco as a saloon chanteuse, and avidly spars with Griffin in preparation for his ultimate battle with Mazurki.

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The delectable Suzanne Pleshette greets her long-lost brother and her butler-cum-swain in San Francisco.

As Griffin, McDowall does everything he did well, plus. As imperturbable as Ruggles at his starchiest, tolerant of Jack’s boyish impulses, implacable in his sense of honor, unflappable in his determination yet game for whatever opportunities arise, McDowall’s Griffin is thoroughly engaging company. As an added fillip, the movie, smartly adapted by Lowell S. Hawley and stylishly directed by James Neilson, utilizes slapstick devices like under-cranking for sped-up effects along with a series of delicious animated assists from Kimball. The best of these is the period Cupid who floats languidly across the screen to the accompaniment of a hilariously underpowered horn solo, whenever Pleshette bestows a kiss on McDowall.

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Griffin’s terpsichorean display of fisticuffs astounds the Mountain Ox.

The mis-matched boxing championship with which the narrative culminates hinges on these comedic effects, and could easily have been sunk by them. Instead, they, like the inventive choreography of Alex Plasschaert, prove positive assets, done with the complete assurance and the broad smile of the consummate prankster. Far too many Disney comedies of the period, and after, and which utilize similar devices, wedded to cutesy-poo plotting and cartoon characterization, are broad, vulgar fiascoes of the type that give “family comedy” such a black eye and which so fervently resist revisiting. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, like The Love Bug and the originals of That Darn Cat and Freaky Friday, are the exceptions one wishes had more often proved the rule.

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One of Peter Ellenshaw’s superb matte paintings, here evoking the 1840s port of San Francisco.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

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By Scott Ross

Richard Llewellyn’s massive novel about a Welsh mining family, filmed with a melancholy poet’s eye by John Ford. It was Orson Welles’ bad luck to enter the Oscar® race with Citizen Kane against this moving yet resolutely unsentimental saga — not that the Academy would have given him the awards anyway. (Interestingly, both movies were shot by the great Gregg Toland.) The cast is uniformly superb: Donald Crisp as the kind-hearted patriarch, Sara Allgood as the mother, and Walter Pigeon as the gentle minister whose love for the radiant Maureen O’Hara is doomed to mutual frustration.

But the revelation is little Roddy McDowall as Hew, the sensitive youngest son. McDowall later claimed that Ford “played me like a harp,” but the director was astonished by the boy’s innate abilities: Watching McDowall rehearse the scene in which Hew first enters school, and noting the way the child edged toward his desk completely in character, staring forward and finding his seat with one buttock, the director remarked to an onlooker, “That kid is so good he acts with his ass!” The final shot of McDowall, his dead father in his arms and shattered beyond feeling, is like the more vaunted image of Garbo at the end of Queen Christina, but far less studied and academic… and infinitely more devastating.

Phillip Dunne did the splendid adaptation, and the spirited score is by Alfred Newman. His theme for the lovers is a whispered prayer — so tender and delicate it sounds as though it might shatter if you breathed too hard on it.

My only complaint about this luminous portrait of familial warmth in adversity is the comic moment in which Allgood douses Crisp with a bucket of water as, in his bath, he’s about to light up his pipe after a day’s work in the mines. You just know that woman would never have done such a thing to a man who labored under those conditions.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross