Stranger Than Fiction: The Baron of Arizona (1949)

The Baron of Arizona (1950)  Directed by Samuel Fuller Shown: Vincent Price

“In the movie business, a good ending must sometimes hold sway over the truth.” – Samuel Fuller, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking

Before Samuel Fuller wrote and directed his own films, he was a gutsy go-getting newspaperman. Fuller first worked at the New York Journal as a copyboy and eventually graduated to the role of crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, a tabloid newspaper that naysayers nicknamed the “pornoGraphic” due to its explicit content. During the Great Depression, he took his journalism skills on the road and traveled west collecting sensational stories about America, the current crisis it was facing and the rich history that preceded it. One of the stories that captured Fuller’s imagination during his cross-country journey was the strange tale of a nineteenth-century con man named James Reavis. Reavis forged a string of false documents asserting he owned over 18,000 square miles of the Arizona Territories and went to great lengths to convince the U.S. government of his claim. The story of Reavis and his remarkable crimes became the basis of Fuller’s second film, a quasi-fictional account of the events titled The Baron of Arizona (1949).

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The Kitten & The Cowboy: When Ann-Margret Met The Duke

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THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973) airs on TCM August 12 at 4PM EST/1PM PST

When I spotted Ann-Margret on the August cover of TCM’s Now Playing guide I jumped for joy and then I pulled out my treasured autographed copy of her 1994 autobiography, My Life, and did some rereading. I hadn’t looked at the book in years and thought it might inspire me to write something about the actress for the Movie Morlocks and sure enough, it did. What caught my eye was a photo of Ann-Margret with John Wayne (pictured above) accompanied by the line “Duke always had me laughing on the set of THE TRAIN ROBBERS. He was an extraordinary man.”

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Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: A Creative Partnership

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“In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” – from THE WAY WE WERE, scripted by Arthur Laurents

It’s easy to assume that this memorable line I borrowed from THE WAY WE WERE (1973) summarizes Robert Redford’s own life and career. After all, Redford was blessed with all-American good looks and is an incredibly likable performer with limitless charisma. But in truth, Redford’s early years were complicated and he spent more than a decade working in television and film before his iconic role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) made him a bona fide star at age 33. After appearing in one of the top-grossing films of all time you’d expect Hollywood to embrace the sun-kissed actor without reservation but Redford had to fight incredibly hard to continue to make the kind of movies he wanted to make.

Behind many of the popular box office successes and critically acclaimed films that followed, Redford was battling studio heads, arguing with writers, waging war with producers and doing everything in his power to make meaningful films that provided him with complex and challenging roles throughout the 1970s. Today Redford’s impressive filmography during that decade is a testament to his artistic integrity at the time and illustrates his commitment to making quality pictures that entertained but also left audiences with a lot to think about. And some of the best films Redford appeared in during this period were directed by his longtime collaborator and friend, Sydney Pollack.

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John Wayne: The Early Years

This is John Wayne month here on TCM and that means a five day marathon of movies, starting this week, starring the Duke.   Seeing as he acted in well over a hundred movies (closer to two hundred, really), it also means that plenty come from early in his career.   Doing my part, I even wrote up two early oaters, The Big Stampede and Somewhere in Sonora.  The fact is, most stars have brief early careers before someone realizes they have the charisma necessary to be a top marquee name.   Marlon Brando, to use an easy example, had one film, The Men, before A Streetcar Named Desire.  Even though he was famous on Broadway at the time of The Men‘s release, it did nothing for his superstardom.  When Streetcar was released, it was a different story.  He became a star, immediately, and his pre-A-List career remains that one, single movie.  An even more extreme example is Katherine Hepburn.  Her very first movie, A Bill of Divorcement, made her a star.  By her third movie, Morning Glory, she was an Oscar winner.  Pre-A-List career: non-existent.   But some actors, like the Duke, have pre-A-list careers that are almost as long, in number of movies made, as their A-list careers.   In Wayne’s case, it made him a better actor.

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Play it Again, Morricone: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965)

ffdm1FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) airs on TCM tonight, March 6th,
and again on March 31st.

After the troubled release of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) director Sergio Leone wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting the western genre again. He had survived a bitter court battle after his film was accused of borrowing heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (a claim the director reportedly denied citing that both films were based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 crime novel Red Harvest) but afterward Leone was emotionally as well as financially spent. He had lost a great deal of money during the legal proceedings and his mind was on other projects. But the public loved his film and the success of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS meant there was money to be made with a sequel. When he was eventually offered a budget of $600,000 to make a follow-up (nearly 3x the cost of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), Leone agreed and reunited with his star Clint Eastwood along with composer Ennio Morricone to co-write and direct FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965). The title was somewhat of a play on words to mock his past producers who he had parted ways with on less than amiable terms and indicated that Leone’s new film would have a much bigger budget than its predecessor. It was also a cheeky statement about why the director was returning to the genre. Like the protagonists in his film, Leone was hoping to make “a few dollars more” to help compensate for his previous losses and the title would prove prophetic. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE would go on to be one of Leone’s most profitable films grossing some $5 million dollars in Italy and $15 million dollars in America . It would also be an important turning point in the careers of Leone, maestro Morricone and the films two stars, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.

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All aboard the Stagecoach!

I missed y’all last week, due to a technical difficulty.  And thanks to that glitch, I missed posting about John Ford’s Stagecoach in advance of last Sunday’s screening on TCM.  Which is a shame, but at the same time Stagecoach is one of those classic movies so towering in its importance that it practically dwarfs all efforts to really appreciate it–here is the film that made John Wayne a star, that proved that Westerns could move from the B-movie ghetto to being major Hollywood fare, and that then established the character types and narrative tropes that would fuel all those subsequent Westerns inspired by it.  That’s a lot to pull off in just 96 minutes.  More to the point, it’s a set of accomplishments defined primarily by what comes later, by what we know about Stagecoach‘s precedent-setting legacy.

In other words, forget that I missed putting it in context when it aired on TV last week–what would it have been like to experience it back in 1939?  That’s almost beyond our reach altogether.  But c’mon, let’s give it a try, shall we?

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Film Fest Favorites: The Ties that Bind

sffdeadmansposterI saw three of the best narrative feature films I have seen all year at the Sarasota Film Festival, and two of them are getting a theatrical release, which means other viewers will be able to catch them, too. Coincidentally, all of them are about family and community ties.

What movie lover doesn’t carry a soft spot for the western—a genre that Hollywood has all but abandoned. Dead Man’s Burden is a gripping indie western with a stripped-down, straightforward storyline that belies its complex character relationships. I was impressed with the film as soon as I realized it was shot on 35mm. Nothing is better suited for 35mm film than the western because of the narrative significance of the land, often depicted in lingering long shots. Robert Hauer’s crisp cinematography of the vast New Mexico landscape implies that land is important in this film, too, but it is family ties and divisions that make up the heart of this small-scale story. The main location was an actual house from the 1890s that had been built into the side of a hill, providing the perfect setting for a story in which the hard-scrabble pioneer lifestyle is central to character motivations.

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George Sherman, Director of Westerns

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When director George Sherman passed away at the age of 82 in 1991, he was noted only for the quantity of his output. The obituaries in both the Los Angeles and New York Times pointed out the “175″ credits he had accrued as a director for screens both large and small (IMDb lists 126), although nothing as to their quality aside from their “low-budget” origins. I recently enjoyed some of Sherman’s Three Mesquiteers Westerns that he made for Republic (which I wrote about here), but a recent column by Dave Kehr has made me ravenous for more. Reviewing Dawn at Soccoro (1954, released as part of a TCM Vault Collection), Kehr describes him as “experimental”, and the film as,  “a western that might have been imagined by Kafka.” Fortuitously, more of Sherman’s work has been reaching home video. Last month Universal released a budget-priced “Classic Westerns” set of 10 films that include two Shermans: Comanche Territory (1950) and Tomahawk (1951), while Olive Films finished off their stash of John Wayne Mesquiteers films with Wyoming Outlaw (1939).

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Identity Thief: Cheyenne (1947)

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I am a man of few principles, but when a Raoul Walsh film comes out on home video I am duty-bound to write about it. The Warner Archive has been a blessing for Walsh enthusiasts, and their latest gift is a handsomely restored DVD of his Western Cheyenne (1947). It is somewhat of a neglected film in his career, having been released in the same year as the highly regarded  The Man I Love and Pursued. Then its TV syndication title was changed to The Wyoming Kid, to stop people from confusing it with the long running series Cheyenne, and it’s road to oblivion was almost complete. It’s appropriate the film had its own case of mistaken identity, since that’s what the whole plot hinges on – a twisting thicket of shifting identities, doublings and double entendres. Walsh had vocal problems with the screenplay, which veers from bawdy sex farce to a violent adventure, and only seems fully engaged with the brutally efficient open air action sequences shot in Arizona. This friction gives the film an appropriately schizophrenic feel, from frothy banter to frothingly mad violence.

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On the Death of Harry Carey, Jr.

careyjrcardDuring the last phase of his career, Harry Carey, Jr., appeared in small but significant parts in some of the few westerns produced in Hollywood during the 1980s. In Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, he played a stagecoach passenger named George Arthur, who is robbed by members of the James-Younger Gang. When George reveals that he had fought for the South during the Civil War, Bob Younger shakes his hand. The unreconstructed rebel bonds with the outlaws as he helps them rob a cowardly passenger who lies about fighting for the Stars and Bars. As the gang rides away with guns blazing, George walks toward the camera, murmuring in amazement, “I’ll be god damned and go to hell”—a proper testimonial after an encounter with legends. The stage hold-up is one of my favorite scenes in the film because it is Harry Carey, Jr., who delivers this line. As a member of John Ford’s stock company, Carey had walked among a few western legends himself, albeit cinematic ones.

Carey died last week at the age of 91, and most obituaries identified him with Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and the other actors associated with Ford’s troupe. Carey was proud of his close association with Ford and his westerns even when he didn’t fully agree with the great director’s attitude toward his actors. In his autobiography Company of Heroes: My Life As an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, he declared, “. . . I’ve only had one teacher. That man was John Ford. He was my nemesis and my hero. There were times when I was not an admirer—but when the day’s work was done—I loved him.”

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HARRY CAREY, JR., c. 1948

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