Of Hurricanes, Hamburgers, and Huston: Revisiting Key Largo

largohustonOne of my courses this semester includes a section on an auteur—that fancy French word for master director. I let my students choose which director to study from a list that included a variety of filmmakers from different eras. To my great surprise and delight, they selected John Huston over more recent and more famous directors.

I began the section on Huston with Key Largo, a crime drama released in 1948. The film stars Huston favorite Humphrey Bogart as WWII veteran Frank McCloud, who visits the Key Largo home of one of the men from his unit. The young man had been killed in combat, and McCloud feels compelled to call on the man’s father and widow, Nora. Nora is played by Lauren Bacall, and the father is portrayed by Lionel Barrymore, who, by this point in his career, was forced to play his roles in a wheelchair because of the crippling effects of arthritis and two hip fractures. Barrymore’s character owns the Hotel Largo, which has been taken over by gangster Johnny Rocco, played with great flair by Edward G. Robinson. While Rocco and his gang wait for an associate, a hurricane hits the Florida Keys and confines all of them inside the Hotel Largo.

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Still Searching for Old Hollywood, Part 3

hwood3lamarr2Back by popular demand is another installment of “Searching for Old Hollywood” based on my recent trek to Hollywood Forever Cemetery looking for clues to uncover some unique or forgotten insight into the lives of big-name stars and other celebrities. The first part focused on the final resting places of lesser-known film industry figures, while the second spotlighted the legendary stars of Old Hollywood’s romantic and often notorious past. As with the first two parts, I wanted to find a thread to tie together the figures for this final installment. I decided to focus on epitaphs and inscriptions.

The grave markers of Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, and John Huston are across the lane from each other. The ghoulish television hostess and legendary director have nothing in common save for their markers, which display imagery that provides clues to their lives. Nurmi hosted her program of old horror movies on KABC-TV for only a year, but she parlayed the publicity into a career, more or less. Vampira became Nurmi’s contribution to popular culture, and her only claim to fame; when Cassandra Peterson came too close to her act with the character Elvira, Nurmi unsuccessfully sued. Nurmi died alone and broke on January 10, 2008, her decomposing body found by an acquaintance. With no named next of kin, red tape prevented her from being interred until February 17, when her cremated remains were buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Loyal fans spent a year throwing fundraisers to secure the money for a gravestone that befitted her image. Erected in July, 2009, it reads “Maila Nurmi, 1922-2008, Vampira, Hollywood Legend,” and includes an etching of her wearing that tattered gothic gown, which showed off her legendary 17-inch waist. In other words, the gravestone features all the signifiers to her image that a fan would want to remember. (On a personal note, I discovered that Nurmi, who was born in Finland, spent her youth in the Finnish community in my hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio.)

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Tracing My Irish Roots Through the Movies

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John Wayne & Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man (1942)

When I was a child my family regularly celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to wear green and my mother would often make my brother and I a meal that consisted of corned beef and cabbage or my personal favorite, Irish stew with dumplings. But whenever I’d ask family members about our Irish ancestors I was usually ignored or met with a wry smile and a joke about our criminal connections. The truth is that most of my Irish ancestors were apparently kicked out of the British Isles in the early 1800s and ended up in Australia, which was a penal colony at the time. As a youngster I didn’t exactly understand what it meant to the larger world to be related to convicts but I was made to feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed due to my family’s reluctance to discuss our personal history. Now that most of my immediate family has passed on I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into our past and uncover our Irish roots. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience but I’ve had to rely on my own powers of investigation along with lots of paper documents and books to give me a better understanding of who I am and how I got here. I’ve also turned to one of my favorite obsessions for insight, the wonderful world of movies.

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“The Man with the Immoral Face”

Tomorrow evening, TCM offers five films starring Robert Mitchum: Cape Fear, River of No Return, Night of the Hunter, Rampage, and Going Home. The films represent about a twenty-year span, from 1954 to 1971, and range from an undeniable classic (Night of the Hunter) to a complete misfire (Going Home). Whatever the film, or its reputation, Mitchum will be the most watchable actor in the cast. Famous for underplaying most of his roles, especially when delivering dialogue, the actor exuded a laid-back self-confidence. His sleepy-eyed good lucks and barrel-chested physique gave him a commanding presence that was impossible to ignore, and he used his physicality to attract, seduce, intimidate, and frighten, depending on the role.  Well into his 50s, Mitchum had no qualms about going shirtless onscreen and off, driving both his female fans and his costars to distraction. If Marilyn Monroe was an icon of female sexuality for male viewers during the 1950s, then Robert Mitchum was the male equivalent for women viewers. I wonder why no one writes about that. . . except for me, I guess.

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Goodbye Goddess: Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

Elizabeth Taylor has always been one of my favorite actresses. She was an incredible natural beauty. Arguably the most beautiful actress Hollywood ever produced but she was also a brilliant performer when she wanted to be. She dominated almost every film she ever appeared in even when that film wasn’t particularly worthy of her larger than life presence. Taylor was a complex woman with a rich inner life who enjoyed living and one look into her deep violet eyes told you this. Inside of Taylor there seemed to be a volcanic mountain of pent-up emotion just waiting to explode. Her appetite for life was voracious but her heart was huge, open and warm. These are rare and wonderful qualities that you seldom find in today’s Hollywood stars.

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A Sneak Peak at Telluride Film Festival 2010

The 37th Telluride Film Festival promises to be another memorable event for the lucky attendees at this four-day film mecca that occurs over the Labor Day weekend, Sept. 3-6. Classic movie fans, in particular, will be excited to know that Italian screen legend Claudia Cardinale will be one of the honorees with a screening of Valerio Zurlini’s GIRL WITH A SUITCASE (1961). In addition, there will be a retrospective showing of Robert Rossen’s THE HUSTLER (1961) with Paul Newman’s Eddie Felson squaring off against Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats in the pool hall. And, festival-goers will get an early look at two episodes of the new seven part documentary, MOGULS AND MOVIE STARS: A HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD, which TCM will premiere on the network beginning Nov. 1st, with each new episode appearing every Monday evening through Dec. 15th.       [...MORE]

Tangential Festival Notes! (Godard, Straub, Cronenberg)

A groggy John Huston welcomes you to today’s equally confused post. He’s an interview subject in Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin (1967), an acidic documentary portrait of 1960s Ireland. Lennon wrote a series of articles for The Guardian about how the Catholic Church and their Republican government cronies were choking off the cultural life of his country, and he adapted his polemics to the screen with the help of regular Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Intimate and barbed, Coutard’s handheld camera nudges its way into bustling pubs, sparsely attended hurling matches (soccer was banned as a “foreign sport”), and the backyards of splenetic Irish authors.  Recently released on DVD by Icarus Films, it’s a unique inverse of the silent “city symphonies” made famous by Walter Ruttmann. Maybe call it a city (and country) evisceration.

So why trot out Huston now? Lennon’s film was the last one screened at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival before Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut shut it down to support the general strike which was occurring outside its doors. There’s a short “Making of Rocky Road to Dublin” included on the disc, and there is footage of a Peter Lennon arguing with Godard and Truffaut at the screening to allow the doomed discussion of his film to continue. All of which is a rather long-winded preamble to talk about this year’s Cannes Festival. Of all of the coverage I’ve been reading, by far the most entertaining has been that surrounding Godard’s latest provocation, his new feature FILM SOCIALISME.

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Suckers on the Screen and Suckers in the Audience

After purposely avoiding it for years due to its terrible reputation, my curiosity finally got the best of me when TCM aired TENTACLES (1977), following the stupefying ZAAT (1972) on Friday May 7th, and I finally watched it from start to finish. One of several ill-conceived and pathetic attempts to cash in on the boxoffice success of JAWS, the Italian produced TENTACLES is a perversely entertaining nature run amok thriller that stands out from the other killer shark clones like MAKO: THE JAWS OF DEATH (1976) and TINTORERA! (1977) by substituting a more elusive title menace – a giant octopus.  What sets TENTACLES’ particular brand of ineptness apart from other run of the mill JAWS ripoffs and makes it hard to stop watching is its almost abstract approach to narrative combined with a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me high profile cast that includes John Huston, Shelley Winters, Henry Fonda, Cesare Danova, Claude Akins and Bo Hopkins, who is self-taught in his own peculiar interpretation of Method Acting.        [...MORE]

The Samuel Fuller Collection, Part 2: An Interview with Christa Fuller

Crimson Kimono

Today finds me further entrenched in The Samuel Fuller Collection, a seven-disc box set which comes out today from Sony Pictures Home Entertaintment and the Film Foundation, and for which I had a hugely entertaining interview with Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife. Before I get to her exuberant personality, a few more notes about the movies…

An auteurist’s delight, the set traces Fuller’s career from assembly-line scriptwriter to writer-producer-director tyro. The leap from the innocuously pleasant It Happened in Hollywood (1937) to the delirious noir Underworld U.S.A. (1961) is fascinating, and the drips of his personality discernible in his screenwriting work from Hollywood through Shockproof (1949) and Scandal Sheet (1952) is something of a revelation. Fuller’s blunt-edged prose is handled deftly by Phil Karlson’s hopped-up realism in the latter, while Douglas Sirk’s gleaming surfaces and detached irony are an odd, endlessly fascinating fit for Shockproof, which should be some kind of auteurist case study.

Then there is the full-on eau de Fuller with The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld U.S.A. Kimono is a nuanced take on inter-racial romance shot through with Korean war guilt and stunning location photography of L.A.’s Chinatown. Underworld U.S.A. is all clenched fists and close-ups, documenting the all consuming revenge kick that takes down Cliff Robertson and anyone near him. His tormentors are thrown up as shadows on an alley wall, his own brick-screen idols that he’ll track down one by one with bitter ferocity.

Below the fold is the interview with the delightful Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife for over thirty years and a great thinker and actress in her own right (her film debut was in Godard’s Alphaville), about her late husband’s career in newspapers, the Army, and Hollywood.

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Gilbert Roland: “Amigo”

Gilbert Roland, photographed by George Hurrell 1939.

Elementary school teacher Alma Bartlett was never famous, she never made a movie, or dazzled others with her wit and beauty. Yet, in her first years as a teacher in an El Paso, Texas school, she built a rapport with a gangly boy whose frequent absences from school frustrated her. The friendship they forged would last for over forty years. Her former student returned to El Paso in years to come, as he would many times. Then he would be a world famous man, renowned for his good looks and for squiring great beauties. When encountering a reporter, he would often unfold an ancient, creased report card he carried in his wallet to display with affection the time that Mrs. Bartlett had enough faith in him to pass him from sixth to seventh grade, despite his neglect of his studies. The seventh grade was as far as his formal education would take him.

Born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso, in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico on December 11, 1905, (some sources say 1903), this boy had what most of us would characterize as a glamorous life, but he would never forget this inspiring young teacher. Alma saw something more in the Mexican-born scion of a family of Spanish matadors, and urged him “to do something with his life.” It would not be easy.

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