Running in place: The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970)

Standard

By Scott Ross

liberation_of_lb_jones_poster_01

Until quite recently, what I knew of The Liberation of L.B. Jones was limited to a few basic facts: Of its being William Wyler’s final movie as a director; of its starring one of my favorite actors, the late Roscoe Lee Browne; of its financial failure; and of its dealing, in some way, with what is prettily called “race relations” in the South of the late ‘60s. Thanks to a kind friend, I have finally seen the picture, and it left me deeply depressed.

No, scratch that: Depressed, and angry. This is due, not to any particular failings on Wyler’s part, or those of his screenwriters, Stirling Silliphant and Jesse Hill Ford, on the latter of whose novel The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones—a better title—the movie was based. I was instead disheartened by the action. Not because I found it unrealistic or clichéd but because I found it all too real. I am angry in part because I had been led, by capsule reviews, to think the picture was well-meaning but inert, and infuriated as well (if only in retrospect) by the movie’s negligible box office at the time of its release. But mostly, I am both angry and depressed because what this movie, now 45 years old, depicts is not simply, or merely, America Then. Remove the period clothing and music, and the casual use, in public as well as private, of the word “nigger,” and what The Liberation of L.B. Jones depicts is America Now.

America Then, in this story, is the South, and the country generally, in which a distinguished black man, a pillar, as they used to say, of his community (or, more to the point of this story, a “credit to his race”) can be cold-bloodedly murdered in the dark of night and his body mutilated, the crime covered up and the assassin, a white police officer, not only free but never charged or in any way acknowledged. America Now is the nation in which a black man or woman of any sort and condition can be gunned down by a cop or a private citizen, even in front of witnesses, be posthumously smeared by the press and blamed for his or her own murder, the crime “investigated,” and the killer never charged.

Do you begin to understand the reasons for my rage?

America Now is America Then, Redux. And with a vengeance.

Lynching, in case you hadn’t noticed, is back. And expressing the unthinkable, the racially insupportable, has re-emerged as a game any number can, and does, play, often in screeching decibels, every day since January of 2008. Barack Obama is hated, not merely for the unforgivable sin of being a Democrat and winning the White House, twice—standard practice on the Right since at least the advent of Bill Clinton—in itself appalling to people who believe they have the right to perpetuate, by whatever means, a Permanent Republican Majority. No, this man has the temerity to not merely be the leader of the other party: He also has the unmitigated gall to be a Negro! (That he is also half white is largely ignored, although one can imagine the mere contemplation of that hideous act of miscegenation committed by his parents also informs the mouth-foaming rage of the GOP, dominated as it is now by the bigots and ignoramuses of the so-called “Tea Party,” an electorate that did not, significantly, exist prior to Obama’s inauguration.) Even those of us who despair of Obama’s corporatist leanings, his war-mongering and his serial lack of spine feel compelled to defend him, more often than not, and despite our discontent, if only because the voices on the other side are so often and so stridently, hideously, bare-facedly those of unregenerate racists, freed now (at last! at last!) from the need to be polite, or covert, in their prejudices. One can be forgiven, in 2015, from wondering whether the 1960s and ‘70s ever even happened. I’ve begun to wonder if we dreamed the entire era.

While racism is never entirely dead, certainly I never thought I’d see a return to such overt ugliness on a day-to-day basis, in my lifetime. The Presidency of Barack Obama has in some weird way allowed what had to be kept either silent, or behind firmly closed doors, to re-emerge into the sunlight. One has the feeling that all too many white, Christian, Americans have been silently steaming for years and years, forced by law and politesse to swallow their fury at being unable to voice their xenophobia, and that all it took to overcome their reticence at expressing their contempt for everyone else—all that “political correctness” that frowned on their being able to call a spade a nigger—was the election to the Presidency by a man of color.

LB Jones

Willie Joe Worth (Anthony Zerbe) confronts L.B. (Rocoe Lee Browne) in the latter’s kitchen.

The dilemma that faces L.B. Jones, in the unassailable person of the great Roscoe Lee Browne, is whether a man may stand up and be a man without being lynched. In a key moment, he recalls seeing a black picketer threatened by a white mob and running, to the jeering accompaniment of “Run, nigger, run!” Surely someone, someday, must refuse to run, and not be lynched. At the emotional climax of the movie, L.B. makes the conscious decision, remembering that taunt, to stop running… and discovers the fatal truth that reason does not prevail. His crime—his willingness, in divorcing his unfaithful wife (an act his racist white lawyer refers to as his “liberation”) to publicly air her prolonged affair with a white policeman—simply cannot be countenanced. What is done to L.B. is so revolting even the white cop (Anthony Zerbe) is sickened, and resolves to turn himself in. He is saved from this foolishness by L.B.’s own attorney (Lee J. Cobb), a prominent man haunted by his youthful affair with a young black woman. He is haunted, not by the affair itself, which he freely admits to, but by the, for him, unconscionable fact that he had begun to see her as a person.

the-liberation-of-lb-jones

L.B with his retainer, the loyal Benny (Fayard Nicholas) and the vengeance-driven Sonny Boy Mosby (Yaphet Kotto).

That there is some retribution, directed at Zerbe’s partner (Arch Johnson) via the intervention of Yaphet Kotto’s Sonny Boy, and that it, like L.B.’s murder, goes unpunished, provides, if not comfort, at least a modicum of dramatic satisfaction. But it cannot mitigate the horror, particularly in the ironic light of Sonny Boy’s own, earlier, decision to bury the past. The  present, however, is not so forgiving. That the movie begins and ends with Kotto’s unreadable face, is telling.

jones3

William Wyler on the set. Center: Roscoe Lee Browne; right, Lee J. Cobb.

Wyler’s direction of The Liberation of L.B. Jones was, at the time, considered half-hearted, even cold. The failure to appreciate the craft, honed over 45 years, with which he approached this incendiary material, is also telling. In a cruel sort of irony, Silliphant, the co-scenarist of this picture, was also the screenwriter of the much more popular, lauded, and awarded, In the Heat of the Night (1967).It takes nothing away from that robust time-capsule entertainment to note that The Liberation of L.B. Jones does not end with the racist toting LB’s suitcase like an unconscious Redcap, the crime neatly tied up and the rifts, if not mended, at least sufficiently patched. In this picture of America Then, there is no comfort. And in that way, too, the movie all too clearly reflects America Now.

liberation_of_lb_jones_poster_02Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

The Letter (1940)

Standard

By Scott Ross

As the duplicitous wife of a British plantation owner in Malaya who shoots her lover, Bette Davis gives one of her most iconic performances in this exceptionally well-directed adaptation of the Somerset Maugham story (and subsequent play). With this, his first produced screenplay, Howard Koch — whose pre-Hollywood credits included the basic script for Orson Welles’ apocalyptic “War of the Worlds” broadcast — mastered his craft with the sort of sparkling dramatic literacy for which American movies of the 1930s and 1940s were justly celebrated. It’s not his fault the Hayes Code stipulated that Leslie Crosbie die for her sins, a prerequisite that leads to a final sequence with, it must be admitted, a certain creepy existentialist fascination. In the fine supporting cast, which includes Gale Sondergaard as a murderous Eurasian (her anger is more justifiable than Leslie’s homicidal rage), Hebert Marshall is quite moving as the planter, a decent, uninspired — and uninspiring — man who simply doesn’t know the woman to whom he’s married. The sinuous, faux-Eastern score is by Max Steiner (of course) and the splendid direction is by the great William Wyler.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Funny Girl (1968)

Standard

By Scott Ross

One of the most spectacular debuts in movie history. In a highly romanticized biography of Fanny Brice with a strong Jule Styne score (and some very good lyrics by the highly variable Bob Merrill) Barbra Streisand repeated, and deepened, her star-making Broadway role.

This big, romantic musical biography of Fanny Brice has a curious pedigree. With the active collusion of Brice’s daughter Fran (the wife of the producer Ray Stark), Isobel Lennart wrote a soapy screenplay for a projected 1950s biopic that never sold and was later re-imagined for the stage, coming full-circle, as it were, for the movie adaptation. The show’s director was Garson Kanin, his Fanny a gawky young singer who had previously stopped her Broadway debut I Can Get it for You Wholesale cold with a hilarious rendition of Harold Rome’s comic lament “Miss Marmelstein.”

Pardon the big words I apply / But I was an English major at CCNY…

Stark, on hand to produce, thought Streisand looked like his maid, and she in turn drove Kanin to distraction with her lack of expertise and professionalism. But her voice was a force of nature, and Kanin (among others) molded her into a real actress, much as Moss Hart had performed his own Pygmalion job on Julie Andrews for My Fair Lady. Then he was fired. (For a bittersweet take, see Kanin’s roman a clef account Smash.) Naturally, the show was a hit. While Kanin and company handled the material comedically, with a light touch on the central Brice-Nick Arnstein romance, the movie (also produced by Stark) unfortunately reasserts the soapier aspects.

Brice herself might not have recognized herself amid all the suds; of her marriages to Nick Arnstein and Billy Rose, she famously said, “I didn’t like the man I loved, and I didn’t love the man I liked.” But she would surely have been impressed by Barbra.

Everything Streisand could do was packed into the movie, from the “I’m gonna be a star whether you like it or not!” opening to the stunning finale in which she stands in a spotlight and pours it all into Brice’s signature torch song, “My Man.” As with the great “Don’t Rain on My Parade” sequence, one of the most exhilarating numbers in all of American movie musicals, “My Man” was planned and shot by the film’s choreographer, Herbert Ross, not William Wyler, an otherwise very fine director who filmed most of this movie rather stodgily. It’s said that Streisand convinced her co-star, and ersatz off-screen lover, the badly miscast Omar Sharif, to break up with her a second time, just before the take, which was done “live.” If the story is true, it’s one of the supreme acts of masochism in service to art, but in any case the sight of Barbra-as-Fanny, choking back tears and gradually giving in to the sheer, narcissistic joy of performance, is shocking in its visual simplicity and histrionic intensity.

I’ve always thought that the ideal casting of Arnstein would have been George Segal. The real Nick was far scrappier — and a great deal less elegant — than the rather stuffy conception of him in Funny Girl, but the project belonged to Fanny’s daughter and her husband, and Mrs. Ray Stark was determined to present an idealized version of her Pop. My thesis is proven, in a way, by how well, and sexily, Streisand and Segal played together two years later in The Owl and the Pussycat, directed by Herb Ross.

“The sun spit morning into Julian’s face…” “Wait a minute! The sun SPIT morning into this guy’s face? His face got morning spit into it?”

Streisand’s Fanny is smashing, and she’s pretty much the whole show. Her comic timing is a thing of beauty, and between the stage musical and the movie her singing had deepened and become infinitely richer.  Kay Medford is a memorably sly Mama Brice, but poor Anne Francis had most of her performance cut (allegedly at La Streisand’s insistence) and Walter Pidgeon is a bit too Mr. Miniver-ish as Flo Ziegfeld. But the movie, despite its occasional ponderousness, is full of delights. Styne and Merrill added a lovely title ballad, beautifully performed and shot, and there are delicious bits of faux-period items like the big Ziegfeld glorification number Streisand turns into a comic shambles and a very funny Swan Lake parody. (It’s a bit truncated; a Baby Snooks number was similarly shot and deleted.)

Funny Girl is not quite a classic. But it’s got Streisand, and that’s more than enough.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Dodsworth (1936)

Standard

By Scott Ross

This William Wyler-directed romantic drama is one of the most adult movies ever made in Hollywood. A successful, middle-aged automobile magnate (Walter Huston) decides to chuck it all and enjoy the remainder of his life. He takes his pampered, willful wife (Ruth Chatterton) to Europe, where she alienates him and takes a callow young lover (David Niven), driving Dodsworth into the arms of an understanding woman (Mary Astor).

It sounds like melodrama, yet its touch is astonishingly light and its emotions honestly earned; the final scene is, in terms of emotional satisfaction, among the loveliest ever filmed.

Sidney Howard adapted his own play, from the splendid Sinclair Lewis novel.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross