Thursday, February 28, 2013

My Ten Favorite Movie Quotes Of All Time

Every time I do one of these lists, I always think of about 20 different items I left out. I'm sure I'll feel the same way about this. I've also tried to keep it clean, which just about eliminates every line of dialogue used in the last forty years. I'll probably do a post in the future containing more of my favorites. But for now....

10. "Asteroids do not concern me, Admiral."
From THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Spoken by James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader

9. "To a new world of Gods & Monsters!"
From BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN
Spoken by Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious

8. "Asps! Very Dangerous! You go first."
From RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
Spoken by John Rhys-Davies as Sallah

7. "It's genuine 160-proof old Anglo-Saxon, baby."
From THE OMEGA MAN
Spoken by Charlton Heston as Robert Neville

6. "Your love of the halflings's leaf has clearly slowed your mind."
From THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
Spoken by Christopher Lee as Saruman

5. "HE HATES THESE CANS!!!"
From THE JERK
Spoken by Steve Martin as Navin Johnson

4. "And what do I have? Nothing but you egg sucking, chicken stealing gutter trash with not even 60 rounds between you. We're after men...and I wish to God I was with them."
From THE WILD BUNCH
Spoken by Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton

3. "But I was going into Toshi Station to pick up some power converters!!"
From STAR WARS
Spoken by Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

2. "When you have to shoot, shoot...don't talk!"
From THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
Spoken by Eli Wallach as Tuco

1. "Monster!!?? We're British, you know!!"
From HORROR EXPRESS
Spoken by Peter Cushing as Dr. Wells





Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in HORROR EXPRESS

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Tribute To Oscar*

What do the following people have in common?


Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Steve McQueen, Kirk Douglas, Errol Flynn, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr, Peter O'Toole, John Barrymore, Cary Grant, Richard Burton, Edward G. Robinson, and Claude Rains.

Not a single one of them ever won a competitive Academy Award.

So you'll have to excuse me for not being all that excited about the Oscars.

Besides....the Blackhawks are playing Sunday night.


*Oscar Gamble....famed member of the 1977 Chicago White Sox South Side Hitmen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND

Britain's Hammer Films is of course best known for the several Gothic horror pictures that were produced by the company from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. But Hammer made various other types of pictures as well, including murder mysteries, pirate adventures, crime thrillers, and war movies. Some of these less renowned non-horrors are actually more entertaining, and more interesting, than the company's monster movies. One of Hammer's most famous (and infamous) productions has recently been released on DVD-R by Sony's Choice Collection. It's the WWII POW melodrama THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND.

THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND is one of the few Hammer movies I had never seen. I was well aware of it's reputation as being one of Hammer's most exploitative stories. It was released to theaters in 1958 under a huge amount of controversy in the U. K. A number of British critics felt that CAMP was just an exercise in making money off of wartime atrocities. They also felt that this was a story that shouldn't have been told in the first place--World War II had only ended a dozen years ago, and Hammer was opening up old wounds. As you can see by the poster above, Hammer went all out in the publicity, and CAMP made a lot of money (the controversy over the film more than likely helped).

I've seen just about every Hammer movie ever made, so it's not very often now that I get to see one for the first time. CAMP is almost never shown on American TV--probably because it's a Hammer film that isn't a monster movie, and also because it doesn't feature Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. Another reason for it never being on TV is because there's a politically incorrect aspect to CAMP--but if you know anything about how the Japanese treated POWs, the movie is probably too tame.

As the story begins, the British inmates of the Malayan Blood Island POW camp are close to the breaking point. The senior officer in charge, Col. Lambert (Andre Morell) finds out through a secret radio that Japan has surrendered a few days ago. Lambert also knows that the Japanese camp commander has vowed to kill all the prisoners, and all the women and children of another nearby camp, if Japan is defeated. Lambert has to try to delay the truth about the war from getting out, while at the same time figure out a way to get help from outside the camp.

CAMP may have been notorious when it was first released, but now it plays as a standard WWII POW tale. Most of the "atrocities" happen off-screen. Director Val Guest gives the film a bleak atmosphere, and he's helped by Cinematographer Jack Asher's stark black & white photography. The actual camp was built right outside Bray Studios, located near Windsor. If you look real close during a burial scene in the early part of the film, you can see part of nearby Oakley Court, an edifice used dozens of times by numerous British horror films. Another well-known Hammer stomping ground, the forest at Black Park (located next to Pinewood Studios), was also used for some exteriors.

The cast is filled with various Hammer veterans or veterans-to-be. Andre Morell's Col. Lambert is a man of steely determination. Lambert tries to be as unemotional as possible, in order to hold his men together. Morell does his usual fine job. If Cushing & Lee were Hammer's Karloff & Lugosi, then Andre Morell was Hammer's Claude Rains. Among the faces familiar to Hammer fans are Richard Wordsworth, Michael Gwynn, Marne Maitland (an Anglo-Indian actor who played a number of "foreign bad guys" for Hammer), and Milton Reid (the British equivalent to Tor Johnson). There's also Michael Ripper, who probably made more Hammer films than any other actor. Usually in a Hammer film Ripper was in front of a bar or behind it....in CAMP he plays a Japanese soldier. Seeing the friendly-faced Ripper as an Oriental villain is a bit disconcerting, to say the least.

Milton Reid
 
 
Mention must be made of the appearance of Barbara Shelley, one of Hammer's most famous leading ladies. It's ironic that the gorgeous Shelley's first major role for the company was in such an unglamorous part. And playing an American pilot is none other than Phil Brown, who will forever be known as Owen Lars, Luke Skywalker's uncle in STAR WARS. (The original STAR WARS has several connections to Hammer Films.)

THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND is certainly not as notorious as it's history has made it out to be. It's a well-done, above average WWII thriller...but it's certainly not on the level, of, say THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (a movie which may have inspired Hammer to make CAMP). What really makes CAMP interesting is Val Guest's crisp, efficient direction. Despite the low budget and the exploitative story angle, Guest brings a understated realism to the production, like he would to all the movies he directed for Hammer. Guest would go on to direct another WWII drama for Hammer, the superior YESTERDAY'S ENEMY.

THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND is certainly a worthy addition to any Hammer fan's DVD collection. WWII buffs may also be interested in checking out this somewhat rare movie. My reaction on seeing it for the first time? It's a typical Hammer production...it's more interesting than other big-budget films with the same premise, and another example of how Hammer could do more with a little than most studios did with a lot.









Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn Blogathon: STATE OF THE UNION






My choice for the Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn Blogathon is a movie that doesn't seem to get the attention of other Tracy-Hepburn pairings such as ADAM'S RIB and WOMAN OF THE YEAR. The choice is STATE OF THE UNION (1948), directed by none other than the legendary Frank Capra. With the combination of Tracy, Hepburn, and Capra, one expects a lot out of this movie--and maybe that's why it doesn't have a more well-known reputation, as I will explain later on. I wrote a blog post on this movie a few years ago, and I have re-written it and re-edited it for the purposes of this blogathon.


If there is any actor that looked like a President (especially in his later years), it's Spencer Tracy. It's hard to believe he never actually played one on screen. He did play a powerful big-city mayor in THE LAST HURRAH, but the closest Tracy got to the cinematic White House was in STATE OF THE UNION. Tracy plays airplane magnate Grant Matthews, who is set up as a Presidential candidate by powerful newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury). Matthews and Thorndyke are also having an affair. Matthews is sent on a cross-country speaking tour, and his political handler (Adolphe Menjou) decides it would be a good idea for Grant's estranged wife Mary (Hepburn) to go along. Mary swallows her pride and agrees, because she still loves her husband and thinks he really would make a great President.

As one can see, the title of this film has a double connotation. It refers not to just Matthews' quest for office, but his marriage as well. Ironically for a Tracy-Hepburn movie, the famous couple don't have a lot of scenes together. Hepburn doesn't even make an on-screen appearance until about a half-hour into the story. It's unusual to see Hepburn in this type of role--one expects her to be more forceful and try harder to upset the plans of her husband's political advisers. Believe it or not Hepburn is upstaged by Angela Lansbury. Lansbury is as cold and sullen as can be--one wonders what Grant Matthews even sees in her--but she steals every scene she's in. It would have been interesting if Hepburn had played Angela Lansbury's part.

No other actor could make a speech or recite dialogue like Spencer Tracy, and he makes a mighty attractive Presidential candidate. Grant Matthews is a plain-speaking, populist idealist who says at the start of the film that he "hates politicians". Even though this movie was made 65 years ago, today's viewers will be reminded of recent independent non-political politicians when they watch Matthews. He's got a little of Ross Perot, and yes, even a little Donald Trump in him. I don't like bringing up the Trump comparison, but unfortunately it has to be done. I must point out that for the most part Grant Matthews is very different from Trump--but remember that this film came out in 1948, and voters of that time might very well have reacted to Matthews the way people do today to the current President.  The script makes sure that Matthews stays middle-of-the-road when it comes to actual ideas--at one point Matthews criticizes labor AND big business--so he'll be on the good side of most of the audience.

Even though Grant Matthews sounds a lot like other Frank Capra heroes like Longfellow Deeds and Jefferson Smith, he doesn't have much in common with them. As his speaking tour goes along, Matthews becomes so excited by the chance of winning the Republican nomination that he starts "playing ball" and doing things the typical politician's way. Capra's Mr. Deeds and Mr.Smith got into trouble by trying to do the right thing. Grant Matthews thinks that if he abandons his principles to get to the White House, he can make up for it by doing all the right things as President. (That's probably what every American politician says to him or herself every day of their lives.) One of the reasons why STATE OF THE UNION does not share the legendary status of most of Frank Capra's work is probably due to the lead character. It's easy to root for Mr. Deeds, and Mr. Smith, and George Bailey...but Grant Matthews, despite his supposed integrity, is a man who's having an affair and desperately trying to obtain an office he keeps saying he doesn't want.

The climax of STATE OF THE UNION revolves around a live television broadcast from the Matthews home. This sequence is where Capra is at his best, with a large crowd, fast editing, and various characters reacting to one another. It also sets up a great "actors moment" for Tracy as he comes clean and tells his nation-wide audience that he's not the man they think he is. There's a great line of dialogue as the political hacks try to stop Tracy from speaking...he yells out "I'm paying for this broadcast!!" That's a line Ronald Reagan would paraphrase in a real debate.

STATE OF THE UNION, for whatever reason, has never gotten a lot of love from Frank Capra buffs or Tracy-Hepburn fans. Maybe the combination of a great director and one of the greatest screen couples just set the bar too high. STATE OF THE UNION was based on a play, and at two hours length the story does have a lot of talky scenes (but there's nothing wrong with listening to Spencer Tracy talk). One of the interesting things about the movie is that unlike other Hollywood Golden Age political films, it is set in the "real world". Republicans and Democrats are mentioned, and so are actual politicians like President Truman, Dewey, Taft, and Wilkie. This may date the film badly for some people but the main storyline could easily be remade today with just a few changes. (If the story was remade now, you can bet the character of Grant Matthews would be far more Trump-like.) STATE OF THE UNION may not be the best Frank Capra movie, or even the best Tracy-Hepburn movie, but it still holds up very well today. It also shows us that all the things that we complain about in today's political world....the media controlling (and propping up) candidates, the influence of special interests, the gap between a politician's public stances and his private life...all these things were around 70 years ago, and they'll most likely always be around.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

SKYFALL: Further Observations

I just watched SKYFALL again on Blu-ray. I discussed this movie a little bit during my post on Daniel Craig (http://dandayjr35.blogspot.com/2012/11/daniel-craig-as-james-bond.html?spref=tw). Here's some more observations (you should see the movie first before reading this):

--The Cinematographer, Roger Deakins, is the real star of this movie.

--In my Daniel Craig post I mentioned how bad guy Javier Bardem seemed to be doing a riff on Heath Ledger's Joker. Maybe I thought that because the whole "bad guy allows himself to be captured so his incredibly intricate and complicated plot can go into motion" thing appears to be "inspired" by THE DARK KNIGHT.

--Albert Finney is really, really, old.

--The climax of the film, where Bond turns his boyhood home into a fortress and takes on Bardem and all his guys by himself, reminds me of a cheesy 80s action flick starring someone like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. It's a very well done sequence, but it just doesn't have a true "Bond" feel to it.

--I still think the movie is about 20 minutes too long.

--Having the 1964 Aston Martin in the film, and actually putting it to use in the climax was cool....but if this is a 21st Century Bond that we've seen from the "beginning", the Aston Martin really shouldn't have a connection to him.

--How come Bond doesn't walk past the gun barrel at the start of the movie anymore? Why do they now have him do it at the end?

--SKYFALL won the BAFTA award (the British version of the Oscar) for Best British Film. I think that says more about the state of the British Film Industry than it does about the quality of SKYFALL.

In the end, SKYFALL is a decent Bond film...but I must admit it's not as great as some make it out to be.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Lon Chaney, Jr.

 
 
 

This weekend there is a Chaney (Sr. and Jr.) Blogathon hosted by the sites Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. This is my contribution featuring Lon Chaney Jr., which I originally wrote on his birthday earlier this year.

On  2/10/1906, Creighton Tull Chaney was born. You know him by his professional name, Lon Chaney, Jr. He is most famous for his many classic horror film roles, especially his portrayal of the Wolf Man. In fact Lon Jr. was the only actor to ever play all the four great horror film creatures--the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Dracula, and the Frankenstein's Monster.

But Lon Jr. was also a solid character actor who appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows which had nothing to do with horror or science fiction. He was particularly adept at Western roles--one of Lon's best performances was in the acclaimed HIGH NOON. He also made a great comic foil for the likes of Abbot & Costello and Bob Hope.

Creighton was the son of silent-screen icon Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces. After his father's death in 1930, the younger Chaney tried to break into Hollywood. He spent most of the decade in bit roles, and eventually was pressured into using the name "Lon Chaney, Jr."

Lon's breakthrough part was that of Lennie in OF MICE AND MEN, the famed movie adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel. Chaney should have at least received an Academy Award nomination for Lennie--it's a performance that still holds up today. Universal Pictures soon signed Lon and put him into a number of their various horror films. Universal was obviously trying to sell Lon Jr. as the inheritor of his father's macabre roles. The younger Chaney was never happy with this, but THE WOLF MAN gave him a legacy all his own.

THE WOLF MAN, in human form "Larry Talbot", was absolutely perfect for Lon Jr. Talbot is an ordinary, well-meaning man beset by circumstances beyond his control and understanding. That could also be a description of Lon Chaney Jr. Out of all the great horror film stars Chaney Jr. is the only one who seems to be a blue-collar guy. All the other horror greats--Karloff, Lugosi, Atwill, Zucco, Price, Cushing, and Lee--had an air of aristocracy about them. Chaney Jr. looks like someone who has actually worked for a living. This makes Lon Jr. the odd man out when it comes to the monster movie hall of fame. It's also why Lon Chaney Jr. is the one great horror star that causes so much controversy among monster movie fans. A lot of fanboys can't stand him...especially in roles like the ones Lon played in Universal's "Inner Sanctum" series. In those films Chaney was usually cast as someone other than a likable big lug. It might have made Lon happy to play against type but the "Inner Sanctum" films do not present Lon at his best.

If you want to start an argument with a monster movie fan just mention Lon Jr starring in SON OF DRACULA. First off, there's a debate on whether the vampire in the movie is the real "Dracula" or not....I happen to think he's the actual Dracula. Then there is the question of whether Lon Jr. was miscast in the role. I think Lon did an excellent job. He isn't Lugosi...there's no way he could have been. But Lon brings across the power and ferocity of a vampire better than just about any actor had up till that time. Lon Jr's Dracula is very much like Christopher Lee's portrayal in the later Hammer movies.

Unfortunately Lon Jr. is also known for the many demons he battled in his personal life, including living under his father's shadow and bouts with alcoholism. When it comes to monster movie gossip, only Lugosi is on a level with Chaney Jr. Lon's off-set problems have influenced how many monster movie fans see him today. Lon's private battles also affected his later career. Despite appearing in prestige productions such as THE DEFIANT ONES, and guest-starring in several popular TV series, Lon spent a lot of time in the 1950s and 60s wasting his talent in some truly awful product. Other than THE HAUNTED PALACE and WITCHCRAFT, Lon's horror and science fiction roles from this period are best forgotten. Lon Chaney Jr.'s last film was the terrible DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, where it's obvious Lon was in no condition to be acting.

Creighton Chaney died in 1973. I've always had a liking for the big lug. Despite his personal problems, his Wolf Man will live forever.




Friday, February 8, 2013

TOWER OF LONDON (1939)

One of the trending topics this week on the internet has been the discovery of the supposed remains of 15th Century English monarch Richard III. I'm no expert on the British Royal family, or the plays of William Shakespeare. But I do know a little bit about films made at Universal Studios in the 1930s. So it's time to pay a visit to the TOWER OF LONDON.

TOWER OF LONDON was made at Universal shortly after the studio's very successful SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. TOWER reunites the Frankenstein film's director (Rowland V. Lee) and major stars (Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff). On first glance TOWER would seem to be a horror film, but it really isn't. It's more of a historical melodrama...but it does have several thriller-like moments. The movie, while good, winds up being neither fish nor fowl. It falls short of being a Universal monster movie, and it's nowhere near a prestige historical epic.

Basil Rathbone is Richard III, fated to be forever remembered as one of history's greatest villains thanks to Shakespeare. One would expect an actor like Rathbone to let loose and ham it up with this part--but he doesn't. His Richard is quietly cold and calculating. Rathbone doesn't rant and rave--this Richard is always watching, always waiting for an opportunity to put one of his schemes into motion. Some may be disappointed that Rathbone doesn't go all out--but it's a novel take on a role that is considered an actor's dream.

Boris Karloff plays Mord the Executioner, the man who does all of Richard's dirty work. Karloff's Mord, bald-headed and club-footed, is certainly a striking image. Mord is introduced sharpening his axe while a raven perches on his shoulder. Karloff steals the show, even though his role is not all that big--there are long stretches of the movie where Mord does not appear. The relationship between Mord and Richard is an interesting one. Mord worships Richard the way a dog does it's master. Mord even begs Richard to take him into battle, where he can kill in "hot blood". This is one of Karloff's few roles in which he's absolutely evil.

TOWER OF LONDON, like a lot of other 1939 productions, has a standout cast. Among the players are Barbara O' Neil (better known as Scarlett O' Hara's mother), Rose Hobart (who was in the Fredric March version of DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE), Nan Grey (a Universal starlet who was in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS), John Rodion (son of Basil Rathbone), and Ian Hunter, who plays Edward IV. Hunter would portray another English king, Richard the Lionheart, in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. We also get to see a very young Vincent Price as the Duke of Clarence. Price's Clarence is a sniveling, limp-wristed coward, and most viewers will be happy to see him get drowned in the vat of malmsey. Price would get his own chance to play Richard III in 1962 for Roger Corman in another TOWER OF LONDON. Universal monster movie fans will recognize such familiar faces as Holmes Herbert, Michael Mark, and Harry Cording.

One more casting note: little Donnie Dunagan, who was Rathbone's child in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and would later provide the voice of BAMBI, makes an appearance.

TOWER OF LONDON may not be a straight horror film, but it does have some gruesome moments, particularly for 1939. There are various tortures, and a feeble King Henry VI (Miles Mander) is stabbed to death while praying (I'm amazed the Hays Office let that scene go through). Of course there are the infamous murders of the Princes in the Tower. It's rare--and surprising--to have any children killed in a movie made during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I'm no scholar on the War of the Roses, so I can't really say how historically accurate the screenplay is. (It was written by Robert N. Lee, the director's brother.) There are two major battles shown--Tewkesbury and Bosworth. The first battle is staged during a rainstorm and Bosworth, where Richard met his end, is set against a fog. The weather does add atmosphere but it also probably helped hide the lack of extras.

Is TOWER OF LONDON the best cinematic interpretation of Richard III? Maybe not, but with Rathbone, Karloff, and the Universal stock company, it's an interesting take on the subject.




Basil Rathbone, in his Richard III costume, visits Marlene Dietrich, who was at Universal making DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. Now that's what I call a workplace enviroment.




Tuesday, February 5, 2013

EIGHT MEN OUT

Recently MLB Network has been showing a series of baseball-themed films. Last Monday night the movie EIGHT MEN OUT was screened. EIGHT MEN OUT, based on Eliot Asinof's same-named book, relates the story of the 1919 World Series "fix", in which certain members of the Chicago White Sox were paid by gamblers to "throw"--that is, to try to lose--the Series to the opposing Cincinnati Reds.

If you've been reading any of my earlier posts, you know by now that I am a lifelong White Sox fan. (You DO know what the title of this blog refers to, don't you?) Being a White Sox fan means you carry a lot of baggage--some of it self-inflicted, I'll admit. The Black Sox Scandal makes up a huge amount of that baggage. Even the White Sox's victory in the 2005 World Series didn't sweep the memory of the Black Sox away.

When I was a kid, and I first started getting into baseball history, the eight players who were suspended for life for participating in the Black Sox Scandal were looked upon as basically crooks. As time passed that attitude started to change. Now, the Black Sox are looked at in some quarters as almost heroes. Movies like EIGHT MEN OUT and FIELD OF DREAMS played a major role in making that happen.

EIGHT MEN OUT was released in 1988 and was written & directed by acclaimed independent filmmaker John Sayles. Sayles sticks fairly close to Asinof's book. I have owned a copy of the book for years and I've always thought that a lot of it reads like a novel. (The book doesn't have any footnotes--and some have claimed Asinof may have invented some of his "facts".)
EIGHT MEN OUT tells a very complex tale, and Sayles has a lot of ground to cover. The problem anyone has with telling the full story of the Black Sox Scandal is that there are so many people involved, and so many plots and sub-plots to deal with, it's almost impossible to clearly cover everything in a two-hour time period. (The best way to do it would be through a multi-part documentary.) Sayles does his best to put in all the major highlights, but if you are a viewer who doesn't know much about the scandal or the characters involved you will probably feel somewhat confused. Where Sayles really hits the mark is creating a sense of what it was like in 1919 and how people interacted with one another at the time. Most historical films get the clothes and the props right, but the performers still act and talk the way they would in their own contemporary lives. EIGHT MEN OUT is one of the few period films that does not have this problem.

EIGHT MEN OUT has a huge and varied cast. The actors that come off best are the ones in the non-baseball player roles. John Anderson plays the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and he looks like a still photo of the Judge that has come to life. Michael Lerner plays Arnold Rothstein, the gangster who orchestrated the "fix". Legendary Chicago social commentator Studs Terkel is sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, who suspected something was going on even as the Series was being played, and John Sayles himself went in front of the camera to play fabled writer Ring Lardner (Sayles bears a striking resemblance to Lardner).

John Mahoney is perfect as White Sox manager Kid Gleason. The owner and founder of the White Sox, Charles Comiskey, is portrayed by Clifton James. James played a number of blustery buffoons in his career, and he plays Comiskey as....a kind of blustery buffoon.

It's no surprise that Comiskey comes out this way. John Sayles is a bit left-of-center, and it's obvious that he felt sympathy for the Black Sox. The movie (and Asinof's book) lay out the case that Comiskey was a heartless skinflint, and the Black Sox were "driven" to throw the Series because of him. The casting of the ballplayers is another example of Sayles trying to influence the audience. With the exception of Michael Rooker (who plays the "fix" ringleader, Chick Gandil) and David Strathairn (who plays the slightly older than his teammates Eddie Cicotte) Sayles cast a bunch of young, fresh-faced actors (John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D. B. Sweeney, etc.) to play the Black Sox--a sort of mini-brat pack. Anyone who has seen photos of the real Black Sox know that those guys didn't look like Hollywood heartthrobs. One wonders how sympathetic the audience would have been if the Black Sox had been played by actors who more physically resembled them. (By the way, a young Harry Dean Stanton would have been perfect as Shoeless Joe Jackson.)

John Cusack plays Buck Weaver, who apparently knew about the fix, didn't want to be in on it, and was stuck trying to play his best and still not "rat" out his fellow ballplayers. D. B. Sweeney plays the White Sox's best hitter, Shoeless Joe Jackson. Shoeless Joe has now taken on almost mythic proportions--partly because of films like this and FIELD OF DREAMS. Sweeney's Joe comes off as somewhat of a baseball Rain Man--he sometimes acts like he isn't aware of what's going on around him. This plays up to one of the many legends surrounding Shoeless Joe--the legend being that because Joe was a Southerner who didn't know how to read and write, he couldn't have been involved in something as complicated as throwing a World Series. I've read multiple biographies of Jackson, and while it's true he was functionally illiterate, he certainly wasn't a naive country bumpkin.

EIGHT MEN OUT is certainly not a "feel good" movie. At the end all eight Black Sox are banned from baseball forever (just as in real life). The movie is one to be admired rather than loved. There are a ton of various characters, but none of them seem to grab the audience's attention completely. And for a film based on such a controversial subject, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of passion or emotion.

As stated before, EIGHT MEN OUT (and FIELD OF DREAMS, which came out soon after) helped turn the Black Sox from being perceived as fiends into being looked upon as working-class victims. Whenever I have a discussion about the Black Sox Scandal with anyone (more like an argument), the other person's entire information on the subject comes from the movies. If it was simplistic to portray the Black Sox as villains, it's just as simplistic to make Charles Comiskey out to be an evil rich guy and the players noble men who had no other choice but to do what they did. Real life, and real events, are a lot more complicated...but in the sound bite society we live in, high concept reigns supreme. There are no good guys or bad guys when it comes to the Black Sox Scandal. Everybody lost--Comiskey, the players, the fans, and most of all the game of baseball itself. One of the most famous lines in movie history comes from John Ford's THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. The line is: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That certainly describes how the Black Sox Scandal is looked at today. The legend of the simple Southern ballplayer with the cool nickname emerging from the cornfield is far more powerful than any actual fact.

John Sayles' EIGHT MEN OUT is a very earnest attempt to recreate a very complex historical incident. But it should be remembered as a dramatization of said event--and NOT as the definitive interpretation of it.



Saturday, February 2, 2013

Brigitte Helm In METROPOLIS

This time of the year is usually referred to as "awards season", when all the beautiful people get together at various functions and congratulate each other on how talented they are. I think it's ironic that people get so worked up about award shows, because some of the greatest film performances of all time didn't receive any type of award recognition whatsoever.

One example which comes to my mind is what I consider one of the best performances of any actress in the history of cinema--a performance that will be remembered far longer than the shelf life of the latest "hot" Oscar-nominated starlet. I'm talking about Brigitte Helm in METROPOLIS.

METROPOLIS has always fascinated me. I first saw it as a kid in the eighties on public television. Of course at that time the print was horrible, and it was severely cut--but there was something about the production, especially the visual aspect of it, that intrigued me. METROPOLIS is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I've seen it in a number of forms (including a big screen showing of the latest restored version at the University of Notre Dame's Browning Theater). My love of silent film stems from METROPOLIS.

One of the most amazing aspects of the production is the film's leading lady, Brigitte Helm. She actually plays two roles--the saintly Maria and her robotic evil twin. Her acting is very stylized, very over-the-stop, and filled with all the silent film performance techniques that some modern viewers find silly. Nevertheless, Brigitte Helm is simply astounding. In a movie like METROPOLIS, you can't be realistic, or understated. Helm matches the scope of production and mesmerizes the viewer. Director Fritz Lang gives Helm a number of giant close-ups which make the audience feel she is emoting directly to them.

But the most incredible fact about Brigitte Helm in METROPOLIS is that this was her debut film. She had never acted before a camera in her life. She was discovered by Fritz Lang at the age of eighteen, and started working on METROPOLIS about a year later. In her first professional role Brigitte Helm created one of the most iconic characterizations ever known to film, and the undying love and affection of crazed fanboys to this very day (including this blogger). Forrest J. Ackerman, the original (and greatest) fanboy, was absolutely smitten by her.

Brigitte Helm's film debut has to rank among the very best, right up there with Orson Welles in CITIZEN KANE. It's even more impressive when one considers how much METROPOLIS cost and how arduous the production was. Add to the fact that Fritz Lang wasn't the most sensitive person in the world, one can only imagine what Helm went through.

For a couple of scenes Helm actually had to wear the "robot" costume--she didn't have a stunt double. Later on in the film the "False Maria" is burned at the stake, and Helm almost really was injured severely. The making of METROPOLIS took over a year, and there's probably very few actresses who would have been able to deal with the movie's requirements.


Brigitte Helm will always be known for METROPOLIS. She made other films during her short career, but some of them are lost, and most of the rest are unavailable on American home video (there are several clips of her on YouTube). Helm left Nazi Germany in the mid-thirties and moved to Switzerland with her family. She never acted again, and refused to do any type of interview about her career. She may have wanted to escape the limelight, but her stance made her only more mysterious and attractive to film buffs. She died in 1996 without ever letting anyone know what it was like to work on METROPOLIS and how she felt about being a cinema icon.

No matter how many awards an actor wins, he or she can never leave the same legacy as Brigitte Helm did for just one film.