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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Toupee of the Day to ya'!

Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis both donned fancy wigs
 in Some Like It Hot but to calculated, comic effect.

In Hollywood, youth is everything. This goes beyond the need of an artist to stay young and attractive. It has even more to do with maintaining one's image so as not to disappoint the public. Change is death-- at least that is what so many celebrities have been led to believe. For every movie star at his peak, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, waiting to take his place. To maintain their relationships with their fans, many celebs resort to plastic surgery, sadistic diets, and outrageous workout routines. The refusal to age becomes a bit of an obsession to some: such as Joan Crawford, who was so desperate to maintain her own illusion of youth that she created for herself a somewhat crazed looking mask of makeup, which included exaggerated eyebrows and ghastly lips. Women are most often pegged as paying overt attention to their appearance, but the guys are also suckered by Hollywood's ageism. While women pile on cosmetics and slip into their spanks, men tighten their girdles... and commission new hairpieces. Here are a few examples of male vanity rearing its ugly head and covering its baldness with a bald-faced lie: the toupee.

John Wayne (left) wasn't a self-absorbed or superficial man, but he knew how much his image meant. Therefore, he was willing to obey the rules by muting the true effects of his age as he matured before the screen. For one, he always went on a strict workout regime before each film so he could shave off a few pounds-- though known as the typical man's man, he was never too pressured to hide his paunch in the later years. One stipulation he could not avoid was camouflaging his thinning hair. After several years in the business, the thick head of curls that earned "oohs" and "ahhs" during The Big Trail started disappearing, but the studio saw to it that his handsome face remain bedecked with a full head of artificial hair. There was at least one instance on set when his hairpiece actually caught on fire during an action sequence! Duke always laughed it off, finding the whole thing absurd, and he didn't continue the facade at home, as his friends Walter Reed and Budd Boetticher would recall. One day, Water and Budd were visiting Duke at his house in Encino. When they left, the rain was pouring, and their car got stuck in the mud. A few police officers happened upon them and asked what they were doing. They replied, of course, that they had been visiting John and had gotten stuck on their way home. One particular cop didn't believe them, thinking that a star as big as the Duke would live in a much fancier part of town. So, to prove themselves, Budd and Walter took the officer up to the house. Duke answered the door, sans toupee, and the fellas explained the debate to him. He then drawled, "Well, I'm Duke." The cop replied, "You don't look like John Wayne." John followed up with the deadpan, "What the Hell do you want me to do? Go in and put my hairpiece on?" The group burst into laughter. Now starstruck, the cop and his fellow officers asked for autographs, which Duke whole-heartedly gave.

The string bean of swing, Fred Astaire (right), also had a toupee of his own, but he was much more insecure about it than Duke. Short and frail of build, Fred was never totally confident in his appearance, despite the fact that his fans found him adorable. He mostly hated his hands, which he considered too large, and he concocted special postures and ways of holding his fingers together to make them appear smaller. He too suffered from the curse of male age when he started losing his hair. Frequent partner Ginger Rogers would get to see first-hand the dark side of Fred's usually light mood when he was caught bare-headed. They were filming the last production day on Top Hat when director Mark Sandrich suddenly decided he wanted to add a final dance sequence-- ya' know, to put a fun period on the film. Since the dancing duo always liked to rehearse everything, this last minute decision cramped their style. Ginger was more inclined to just go with it, but Fred-- who was a professional and perfectionist-- was greatly put out and concerned about the improvisation. Nonetheless, Ginger coaxed him to just go ahead: she'd "follow his lead." So, the partners sauntered down the stairs of the set, adding dance steps as they descended. All seemed well until Fred's hat fell off. To Ginger's shock, Fred turned bright red and started howling, "No, no, no!" He then stormed over to a wall and kicked it with one of his famous feet, not once, but five times. Ginger and Mark later discovered the source of his ire: because he was wearing a hat in the scene and had not intended to show his head, he had not put on his toupee. The threat of his thinning head being on display was apparently more than he could handle. Eventually, Fred cooled down, and the scene came together with the audience none the wiser as to what was (or rather wasn't) hiding beneath that infamous Top Hat.

After Bing Crosby (left) passed through a half century of life, he began to panic. Fifty-years-old is too old for Tinsel Town, and as younger men arrived in Hollywood every day, the aging crooner felt his time in the spotlight coming to an end. His personal life was in shambles too. By 1954, he had lost his long-suffering wife Dixie, and his long-term love affair with alcohol was going full throttle. Feeling himself seep into a crack from which he may never be able to crawl, he knew he needed a big hit to get him back on track. While his voice remained in top form, he could not deny that he was getting older and that maybe his film characters should start aging with him. He had relied on his charm and voice to carry him through his other films, but if he was going to stay on top, he needed to act like a real actor. Enter George Seaton and his film adaptation of The Country Girl. Teaming up with William Holden-- another aging but still handsome leading man-- and Grace Kelly-- whom Bing originally opposed in favor of Jennifer Jones-- Bing got ready to tackle one of the most difficult and memorable performances of his career. The role hit close to home. For a former playboy to play a washed up, alcoholic, faithless has-been was... uncomfortable.  And though Bing trusted that the role could showcase his range, he feared that audiences would associate him with his character and that he would lose his prestige in the industry as a swoon-inducing Lothario. When filming began, it was clear to all that he had lost his swagger. He arrived two hours late the first day and was later found fretting and sulking in his dressing room. Most shockingly, he was wearing his favorite 20-year-old hairpiece, which made Seaton cringe. Bing refused to give up his ratty, old toupee, believing that it shaved decades off his appearance. As the director pressured him to get to set, Bing nearly broke into tears: he couldn't perform without his lucky hair! Finally, Seaton saw that the wig was more to Bing than a head of hair-- it was a physical symbol of his insecurity. Finally, Seaton got to his actor, saying that he understood how frightening this whole experience must be. He finished with, "Let's be frightened together." Bing perked up, left his dead hair behind, and churned out an Academy Award nominated performance.

Sextette is a best forgotten film. It remains notorious simply for its leading lady, Mae West, who was just as lustful and vibrant at 85 as she had been at 25. Mae was still her usual, sensual, optimistic self, and she felt as healthy as ever, but she could not deny that her film career seemed to be coming to an end. She was long past her hey-days of the '30s when She Done Him Wrong made her a superstar. She remained a very public figure, continuously discussed and lampooned, and age never cramped her style as she continued to be one of the hardest working women in showbiz-- though Vegas shows had become the order of the day over feature films. She always preferred the stage anyway, so it was a welcome change. It seemed time to bid farewell to the silver screen and to do so in grand fashion. This extended not just to her extravagant wardrobe, but to the film's casting. Boasting a plethora of attractive and unexpected supporting characters-- including Timothy Dalton, Tony Curtis, Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper, George Hamilton, and Keith Moon-- the greatest casting coup of all was winning old flame George Raft's participation. It was actually a "thank you," for George had given Mae her first screen credit in his film Night After Night. However, George was not too inclined to accept Mae's heartfelt favor. He was old, and unlike Mae, tired and ill. But, she coaxed him into it. Eager for the reunion, Mae was aghast when she spied George's toupee in his dressing room before filming began. "What's this?" she asked Marvin Paige, the casting director. When he revealed that it was George's hairpiece, Mae became distraught. "No, no, no," she insisted. She preferred him in the slicked-back style of their youths. "I like him greasy," she insisted. One problem: George had little hair left to grease. This left the production in a dilemma. George hated wearing a hairpiece in the first place, so losing it was no problem, but slicking back non-existent hair was also out. Finally, a solution was found-- he would wear a hat for his scenes. No hair, no worry. The film, sadly, was far from a hit, but it did form a perfect circle in the film careers of George and Mae. It turned out to be the last film either of them ever made. Both passed away in November of 1980 with Mae surprisingly beating George to the punch by two days. Always with gentlemen, "ladies first." (The two in younger days, right).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

DIDJA KNOW: Didja Catch That?

This edition of "Didjas" includes a motley assortment of near misses. For one who is unaware, unobservant, or perhaps simply uninvested, these quick little ditties and bits of info may slip right past your nose, eyes, and ears. Perhaps now with a second look, you'll be able to catch them!

John Wayne, Monty Clift, and Walter Brennan in Red River
their belt buckles were about to be upgraded.

The film Red River turned out to be a triumph for everyone involved. Howard Hawks crafted one of our most perfect Westerns, John Wayne proved that he could act (and age) with great grace and conviction, and Montgomery Clift made an astounding cinematic debut. Hawks was so proud of the film and all those who took part in it that he gave the cast and crew members a piece of memorabilia: a belt buckle with the infamous cattle brand featured in the film-- which symbolized one of the plot's major sources of contention between the main characters. The design included a "D" for Thomas Dunson-- Wayne's character-- two wavy lines signifying the river, the words "Red River," the date, and the recipient's initials. But didja catch a sight of this belt onscreen? The Duke wore his belt-buckle on camera in several of his future movies, including Rio Bravo and El Dorado. Allegedly, in order to honor their professional and personal relationship, Duke wore the buckle in all of his later Hawks-directed films. It has been spied in his wardrobe in nine films total. If you squint, maybe you'll see it too.

A sample of the Red River Belt Buckle.

Duke had a habit of honoring those who had helped him in some way. Just as Hawks helped boost his career and earned him respect in the industry, idol Harry Carey had inspired and aided him in his early days as a prop boy and B-Western star. They would even appear in several films together and, in addition to Duke befriending Harry's wife Ollie Carey, he too would take his son, Harry Carey, Jr. under his wing and treat him like family. After Harry passed away in 1947, Duke was despondent and missed his friend and mentor terribly. He was too supportive of Ollie in her grief, which was still palpable when they began filming another classic, The Searchers, even ten years later. In this film, Duke would find a way to pay homage to his late, great friend. Didja catch that stance he does at the very end of the film? After Duke's Ethan Edwards returns niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) to the arms of the rest of her kin, he stands alone in the doorway, grabs his right elbow as he takes in the reunion, and slowly turns and saunters off (see left). This posture was reminiscent of Carey and wasn't even in the original script. While filming, Duke was going through the scene as rehearsed when he happened to glimpse Ollie standing behind the camera. Stopping to honor her late husband, he prolonged the already poignant moment by grabbing his arm as Carey would have done. Thus, as he completed one of the best Westerns ever made and sealed his place in time as America's favorite cowboy, he too gave tribute to one of the ghosts of its past. The moment brought tears to Ollie's eyes and to a great deal of fans' as well. (An interesting side note is that Duke, who had typically been imbibing the night before-- most probably with Ward Bond-- was incredibly hung over during the scene. Later, an equally touched Harry Carey, Jr. arranged to have a sign placed on Duke's hotel room door at Goulding's Lodge. It read: "In this room, John Wayne got drunk before he shot one of the most famous scenes in motion picture history").

 Keeping up with the frenetic pace and overlapping dialogue of Howard Hawks's His Gal Friday would give anyone a migraine-- albeit one that they would thoroughly enjoy. The film in its day was groundbreaking in portraying human speech the way it truly occurs-- with one person talking over another and interrupted thoughts cut off mid-sentence. This tactful style created a more believable atmosphere for the fast-talking reporters of the newspaper world, in which lead characters and divorcing spouses Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell battle with verbal spears (right). Russell and Grant, both British, pulled off the speedy American banter effortlessly and made Hollywood history in the process. People may not have understood everything they were hearing all the time, and some viewers certainly struggled with choosing which eclipsing voice to listen to, but box-office revenue proved that no one minded. Thrown into the mix was a reference that many may have missed. Didja catch that zinger Cary made to an ominous politician? He stated: "The last fellow who tried to threaten me was Archie Leach. He cut his own throat two weeks later." Archie Leach, of course, was Cary's born name. For those who noticed, it was yet another cherry on a rip-roaring, nearly indiscernible sundae. 

D.W. Griffith is notorious for his star-making relationships with his ingenues, but he also did a great deal for Wallace Reid. By casting the struggling artist in his controversial classic, Birth of a Nation, he ignited Wally's career, which was a bittersweet event for Wally, who would have preferred a career behind the camera. Nonetheless, audiences responded to him heartily-- mostly because the handsome actor appeared shirtless and consequently showed his brawn in an impressive fight sequence. But Wally's role as the savory Blacksmith was not his only contribution to the film. Didja catch those cameos by Jesus Christ? Well, it wasn't Jesus, it was Wally. It turns out that Wally performed in several of the tableaux Griffith had concocted featuring the Son of the King, though most them hit the cutting room floor. One such sequence featured Abraham Lincoln and Christ shipping the African slaves back to their native land. Another featured Jesus hanging from the cross-- the filming of which was very difficult on a shivering, scantily clad Wally. The crew continuously fed him brandy to keep him warm, and as a result he was so drunk when he was finally pulled down that he had to be carried off the set. Most of these images featuring Christ were considered too graphic and were cut after the Los Angeles premiere, but his superimposed image is still see at the film's end (left), which I am assuming is all Wallace Reid. (In addition: Didja catch those faces in Griffith's Intolerance? Many of Hollywood's elite, Wally included, made uncredited cameos in the Babylonian battle sequence. Some of the stars to take a piece of another controversial Griffith pie were Douglas Fairbanks, Seena Owen, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, Monte Blue, and Owen Moore. Most notoriously, Lillian Gish appears as the woman rocking her baby in the intermittent sequences bridging the film's four storylines together: "Out of the cradle, ceaselessly rocking").

Douglas Fairbanks (right) was Hollywood's favorite hero during his reign as the ultimate swashbuckler and carefree righter-of-wrongs. The films made at his summit, from The Three Musketeers to The Iron Mask, came to define and perhaps even create the cinematic epic. A physical dynamo and equally creative chap, he had a direct hand in pushing the envelope of filmic possibilities technically and artistically. By the time he made The Black Pirate, he was one of the biggest stars in the world, and he showed this by using his clout to implement the new color process into this film as well as staging one of cinema's most famous and thereafter oft-repeated stunts: his character slices through a ship's sails and slides down. But, another interesting moment happens amidst his outrageous actions of daring do. Didja catch that kiss? When Doug finally plants a wet one on his leading lady, the camera hones in on the embrace behind the girl's back, showing only the back of her head. In fact, it was not the movie's actress Billie Dove giving Doug a smackaroo-- it was his wife, Mary Pickford. Turns out she was on the lot shooting Sparrows and decided to stop by for the scene, not out of curiosity but jealousy. She insisted on being the woman Doug kissed, so director Albert Parker staged the scenario so that it could be done. Doug probably didn't mind, since he always loathed romantic sequences. He was always more comfortable working with a saber than with his lips.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a phenomenon. The comedic performances of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in their roles as the feisty Dorothy Shaw and the deceptively dimwitted Lorelei Lee caused a sensation. The musical numbers, ridiculous plot, and show-stopping "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" sequence resulted in a bona fide hit, thanks again to this column's apparent savior-- director Howard Hawks. The costuming by Travilla was also something to behold, with lavish gowns that adorned two of cinema's favorite figures with great panache and sex appeal. One glorious gown barely made an appearance but remains a notorious piece of cinematic fashion history. Didja catch that gold dress? Marilyn wore it while dancing with Charles Coburn (Piggy) in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it aside. It is more memorable as being the dress that Marilyn wore in one of her most famous photos, where she lusciously entices the camera as only she could do (left). Yet, though she was the actress to make the gown famous, she was not the first to wear it. In truth, Ginger Rogers gave the glittering threads their debut when she wore the same gold lame gown previously in Dreamboat. Marilyn, with whom Ginger had become friendly while filming Monkey Business, happened to stop by the set of Dreamboat one day and saw the dress. She liked it and asked to wear it in Blondes, which is exactly what happened. Of course, Marilyn totally stole Ginger's thunder, and the latter lady is rarely given credit for debuting this piece of cinematic gold.

Ginger models a slightly more demure version of the dress in Dreamboat.

The dress where it is currently on display at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
(The reflection of the girl to the right is me, not a ghost).

Keep your eyes peeled until next time!!!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Play It Again, Sam

The players of cinema's past occasionally indulge in a little game of repetition. I'm not referring to the phenomenon of an actor reprising a role in a series of films, as Johnny Depp has done most recently with his Captain Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates of the Caribbean anthology. Instead, I more particularly draw attention to a complete duplication of a role or film throughout a performer's career. Just as Michael Sheen has been called upon to reprise his role as Tony Blair in numerous, unrelated films (The Queen, The Special Relationship), so too have past stars sunk their teeth into a part or a story that they find themselves unable to let go of-- or perhaps conversely the role will not let go of them. Here are a few examples of Flicker-Show Double-Takes. Sometimes, Deja Vu is more than a feeling; it is a fact.

Rooster Cogburn shows Mattie Ross how to fire a pistol. John Wayne's
 interpretation of the weathered but fiery Rooster Cogburn in True Grit 
would ignite more than audience appreciation-- it would
demand a sequel.

The most obvious example is John Wayne's reprisal of the role of Rooster Cogburn from the Academy Award winning True Grit in the following feature Rooster Cogburn 6 years later. After the huge success of the first film, the Duke was asked to get back in the saddle, literally, to cash in on a plum character to whom his audiences had so energetically responded. The plot of the first film involved Marshal Cogburn aiding a young girl, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), in her quest to avenge the death of her father by the hand of Tom Chaney. Chaos ensues amidst comic relief, justice is won, and unexpected affection is born. Duke's convincing and multi-layered performance was reason enough for the studio to come up with a belated sequel of sorts. This time, Rooster would go toe-to-toe not with a precocious girl but with an equally iron-willed woman, Eula Goodnight (Katharine Hepburn). Instead of generational miscomprehension, flirtation and unfulfilled romance permeate the story, with Rooster again tracking down a band of outlaws who have this time killed Eula's father. Both films possess a certain charm and daring, and both remain classics, though True Grit is the most honored. Interestingly, Rooster Cogburn in a way was a duplication for Kate Hepburn as well, since she had portrayed a very similar character to Eula when she starred opposite Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. In both, she plays a strong, older, religious female who is unceremoniously usurped of her home and family-- in Queen,the loss is her brother-- and joins an older curmudgeon on an unexpected journey. In both, victory is, of course, won, and her obstinacy and devotion inevitably whittle down her male counterparts' hearts to nothing. The African Queen remains more noteworthy for Kate, but it is in Rooster Cogburn that you get to witness the 68-year-old actress operate a machine gun. Not too shabby.

Don't mess with the classics: John and Kate continue to kick
tail even in their sixties.

Clark Gable too came back for another round, but this time he appeared in his own remake. In 1932, Clark had starred opposite Jean Harlow (together, left) and Mary Astor in Red Dust. In 1953, proving that at age 52 he was still indeed The King, he again ventured into the wild, but this time with Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. The plots remain almost identical, with the love triangle of the un-tameable Dennis Carson/Victor Marswell (Gable) caught between the virgin and the whore, and the complex nature of both women making it difficult to decide who deserves which title. In the end, he lets the dutiful-- albeit tempted-- married woman go and embraces his true soul mate-- the tainted but lovable shipwrecked floozy with a heart of gold. The main difference in story is Clark's profession, which in Red Dust involves running a rubber plantation and in Mogambo is the trapping of animals. Yet, in both films, his happy isolation is invaded: first by a sensuous woman of the world and later by a prudish couple who are either surveying or studying anthropology as the story dictates. Artistically, both versions are triumphs, with Gable not failing to establish believable chemistry with all four women. There is a definite charm in watching him volley off true life pal Jean Harlow in the former version, but Ava Gardner brings such comedy and heart to her own interpretation of "Honey Bear" that Mogambo cannot be ignored. Mary Astor, already a seasoned performer by the time of filming, seems much more at home than Grace Kelly, for whom Mogambo was only her third film, but the smoldering lust beneath both women's placid demeanors is evident and thoroughly intriguing. Pitting director Victor Fleming against John Ford is too a hard debate to wage, with perhaps Ford coming a little closer to victory. In all honesty, the competition results in a draw. The Red Dust vs. Mogambo phenomenon is most profound for the fact that it is a direct remake that re-stars its male lead, cementing the fact that no one, but no one, can replace Clark Gable.

Choices, choices... Poor Clark must choose between the
luscious Ava and the tempting Grace in Mogambo.

Peter O'Toole is too no stranger to double-takes, and his performance as Henry II in Becket made certain that no other actor could possibly usurp his throne. He put the crown on again 4 years later when he starred in The Lion in Winter. Nominated for his portrayal both times, he would miss out on Academy Award night first to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady and later to Cliff Robertson for Charly. The first film witnesses a young Henry-- about 15 years after inheriting the throne-- and his constant battles with friend, moral compass, and foe Thomas Beckett. In the end, Henry's immaturity and selfishness, along with his inherent need to protect his throne and his England, forces him to take arms against Becket (played with equal magnificence by Richard Burton) and have him killed (he eyes his work, right). Fast forward to 13 or so years later in the story of Lion. Henry has wizened and is facing his mortality. Recasting Peter in the role was more than a logical move; it was a brilliant one. The audience literally sees how he has aged; how the years of battle and politics have taken their toll, and too how he has successfully grown into his role as his country's leader. His errors of the past with Becket remain buried in his bones, a penance he still pays, and this past conflict is referred to whenever Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Hepburn), wants to stick a needle in. The plot this time revolves around Henry's need to secure a heir to his throne. Sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry) all plot, back stab, and battle for the place of honor. Eleanor stirs the pot, not just as a mother, but as a long since spurned lover whose husband has literally kept her locked up in jail to keep her out of his hair and give him free reign to indulge in numerous dalliances, including one with Alais (Jane Merrow), whom he means to marry after divorcing Eleanor. The bitter but unbreakable love between Henry and Eleanor comes to vengeful heights in this Christmas film that engenders anything but familial affection, and the performances of the entire cast are perfection. The dual Henry II films are both superb-- with the writing of Lion pushing it ever so slightly into the realm of cinematic genius-- but watching the progression of Peter O'Toole's Henry is the real reward.

The King and Queen prepare to feast... on each other.

Keeping things regal: before Cate Blanchett became the go-to girl for Queen Elizabeth, Flora Robson enjoyed the same privilege. Getting her start on the stage, Flora turned heads when she appeared as another Liz, Empress Elisabeth in Alexander Korda's The Rise of Catherine the Great. This in turn led to her casting as the notorious English ruler, Elizabeth I, in the 1937 production of Fire Over England. The film, while historically interesting, is more noteworthy today due to its casting of lovers Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who were hot and heavy and both married to other spouses at the time of the filming. To see them before they had reached mutual and independent glory in Wuthering Heights (for him) and Gone with the Wind (for her) is quite interesting. But, while the acclaimed thespians fumble their way through the new medium, albeit eloquently, Flora holds her own and portrays her Queen with a combination of ferocity and humanity (all three, left). Her superb characterization was lauded as the best representation of the enigmatic Queen yet, which led to her casting a few years later in The Sea Hawk. This time, the plot, while equally full of intrigue and corruption, was lighter fare. Enjoying the company of Errol Flynn in his role as yet another charming swashbuckler, Flora's Queen this time around is more light-hearted and emotionally vulnerable, yet her power still comes into play when necessary. Her subtle and denied attractions to her leading men in both roles are pivotal in giving her character sympathy, yet her stoicism and sense of duty ring true in her portrayals of a matriarch. The Sea Hawk is a much more enjoyable film, involving piracy and romance, and Flora truly shines. Rumor has it that even the eternal cad Errol was smitten with her and loved every minute of working with a woman whom he considered to be a true pro.

Flora dominates Flynn in The Sea Hawk, a film into which both actors
injected a lightness and humor that reflected their
off-screen friendship.

Cecil B. DeMille was one man who loved to outdo himself. Proud of his cinematic accomplishments but never satisfied, growing technological advancements only made him more frustrated that his classic efforts became dated and outmoded over time. While he would too duplicate his work when he made the sequel to his cinematic debut, The Squaw Man- The Squaw Man's Son, starring Wallace Reid-- it wasn't until 1956 that he decided to give a piece of his work a complete and utter face lift. The Ten Commandments of 1923 was astounding in its day, and yet another reason that Cecil was being hailed as the filmmaker of his generation. The controversial religious themes, the risque subject matter, and the over the top special-effects splendor, left audiences enthralled and overwhelmed. Yet, as the years passed, and as Cecil always kept the conflicting urges of Godliness and Naughtiness close to his heart, he saw more and more opportunities to improve upon his past majesty-- if only to prove that just because his work was aging, it didn't mean that he couldn't keep up with the times. So, after 3 decades, he gave Moses another go, this time with Charlton Heston replacing Theodore Roberts as the chosen vessel to lead his people out of Egypt. Now in color, the scenes became even more vivid than in their silent predecessor. Special Effects too made the great parting of the Red Sea something to behold, the likes of which had never been seen before. Hailed by many as his best work, the film oddly would not be the one for which he won the ever desired Academy Award-- that honor was bestowed upon his The Greatest Show on Earth-- yet, as his last film, and an epic one at that, it remains his own personal testament-- not of the messages of right and wrong, but of what the great medium of Movies was capable.

Chuck Heston lays down the law in The Ten Commandments and
changes the rules of sin and cinema forever.

As we movie viewers are the recipients of contagious filmmaking-- which infects and spreads the same stories over and over with remakes upon remakes upon regurgitated remakes-- it is no surprise when we find ourselves getting that old, familiar feeling while watching the latest take on, say, the age old boy-meets-girl storyline. But, to witness one of our pioneers blatantly plagiarizing himself is a rare and somewhat baffling occurrence. Somehow, the above exceptions prove that sometimes it is indeed okay to be two-timed. While one artist ripping off or trying to out-do another can be somewhat abrasive to our sensibilities, witnessing the results of an auteur going mono e mono with himself can be quite revelatory, curious, and provocative. It is more common to see an actor take on similar roles to those he has in the past, or for a director to bring to life similar story lines that suit his tastes, but while Michael Haneke re-making his own 10-year-old Funny Games shot for shot may at first appear absurd, it is too entertaining for the audience to level the artist against himself and see what different ingredients against a different time can induce. This anomaly is actually the perfect measuring stick for change. Comparing one draft to another, we more fully witness how history "happens" by watching the way one particular performer has aged with time.

Friday, December 9, 2011


It's time to buy your Mont Alto Movie Orchestra calendar. The 2012 edition is all about animals! All purchases go toward the preservation of silent film. Christmas is right around the corner, and it makes a great gift.

Go here to make your donation/purchase. All it takes is ten seconds and 15 smackaroos!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Loretta Young, whom old pal John Wayne always called Gretchen, would help
 him in his early Hollywood career by getting him roles in  The Life 
of Jimmy Dolan and Three Girls Lost (above).

Football was a big part of John Wayne's life. Not only was it an important part of his close relationship with his father, but it also helped him get to college. Ironically, it would also bring him into the world of Hollywood. John was no stranger to the world of film, having grown up in Glendale and witnessed first hand actual location shoots. But, while focusing on his law degree, he had little time for the make-believe games that he had enjoyed in his youth-- when he had played "movies" with his friends. Nonetheless, the creme de la creme would seek him out, or more particularly his football team, when he began playing college ball for USC. John would later come to emulate the more authentic cowboys of William S. Hart and Harry Carey, but it was the flashy rhinestone cowboy and buckaroo Tom Mix (left) who had the most immediate affect on his life. Tom was a huge football fan, and he used to come to the games to cheer the Trojans on. In return for getting his own private box at the field to entertain guests, he made a promise to coach Howard Jones to "help out some of his boys" by giving them summer jobs. A man of his word, Tom soon had John and a handful of others working as prop boys on the Fox Studios lot. In addition, John worked up close and personal in the Tom Mix hit The K&A Train Robbery. It is possible that he even appeared in it as an extra, playing one of the thugs Tom shoots early in the film.

But, perhaps more interesting on another level was the USC connection John made with Clara Bow (above), who too loved coming to the local games. Of course, she was probably more interested in looking at the young fellas in their uniforms, but who could blame her? There is no doubt that the tall and handsome Duke caught her eye, but she didn't play favorites. In fact, she used to invite the whole team up to her house on Saturday nights after the home games for dinner. Later, such behavior would lead to scandalous rumors-- all complete BS-- that Clara was sexually working her way through the entire team. These allegations were published in salacious rag mags like GraphicC. As the prototypical "flapper" of the 1920s, Clara's free-wheeling and uninhibited ways onscreen and off ruffled feathers and caught her a lot of flack. Sadly, she was too often misconstrued and publicly ridiculed, as in this instance, where her kind intentions to share her wealth and hospitality with starstruck youths backfired on her in the press. There was never any "funny business" to speak of between her and the team, and Duke would never forge any kind of relationship with her other than one based on the memory of a beautiful actress who acted like a kind sister to a bunch of tongue-tied, starry-eyed bucks. By letting them hang out at her palace, she must have made them feel like kings!

Another team member that may have been present at these casual soirees is Ward Bond (above). Turns out that Ward also wore the Trojan jersey and played as a lineman on the team with Duke. Strangely enough, the duo did not originally get along. Outwardly, they were as different as two men could be. Duke was charismatic, yet somewhat bashful, well mannered, educated, and noted for his classic good looks. Ward, on the other hand, was gruff, abrasive, openly promiscuous, arrogant, and constantly getting into trouble. Ward's behavior would annoy Duke... at least at first. Later, after Duke had started working for John Ford, Ward would come back into the picture. Ford wanted to use the famed football team in his film Salute, and he assigned Duke the task of recruiting some of the players as well as his Sigma Chi brothers. Much to his chagrin, Ford gave Ward one of the prime spots, having taken a liking to his "ugly face." Knowing the two didn't get along, Ford took great pride in bunking Duke and Ward together on the train to Annapolis. Perhaps because he found his behavior so shocking and amusing, Ford latched onto to Ward. His brazenness and inability to be intimidated by the notorious director intrigued the senior party, who would both take him on as a friend and cast him in several of his films. Duke too softened after sharing a bunk with Ward. His caustic manners, at first irritating, surprisingly became endearing... and somewhat reassuring. The two became lifelong friends and got into several drunken shenanigans together, often with Ford too in attendance. Not everyone would cozy up to Ward as easily as Duke and Ford did, and he irritated them from time to time over the years. But, as Ford would say, "Ward is a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

Loretta Young also knew Duke when he was a USC boy. It turns out that Duke and ol' Gretchen Belzer (as she was known then) went way back, again to his football days. While attending college his freshman year, Duke was set up in the conventional way on a slew of blind dates. He and his friends would pick up a girl or two and go out dancing and whatnot. It was never a serious thing; just a group of friends having fun. One of Duke's dates was with Loretta's sister, Polly Ann, which in turn must have initially introduced him to Loretta. He and Polly Ann never became more than chums, and she set him up with another friend, Carmen Saenz. Again, Duke kept things casual and wasn't too interested... until he dropped Carmen at home and was introduced to her younger sister, Josie. Here, Duke fell head over heels. Thus commenced a 7 year courtship-- the result of Josie's much opposed family. Not seeing anything bright in Duke's future, the Saenz's weren't an easy sell, being upper crust "Hispanic blue bloods." They were against the match-- particularly after Duke lost his scholarship when he injured his shoulder, and even moreso when they discovered that Duke was not exactly a steadfast Catholic. Nonetheless, he and Josie suffered through the ups and downs, and he finally received her parents' consent. In addition to helping Duke in his career-- helping him land a role opposite herself in films like Three Girls Lost-- Loretta stepped in and  offered up the gardens at her parents' Bel Air estate as a wedding place, since the duo's conflicting religions would not allow them to marry in the Catholic church. Loretta was present at the wedding (above with the happy couple), as were George O'Brien and Henry Fonda, but despite the fact that Duke was already working in Hollywood, he was not yet big enough of a star to demand more media attention. The nuptials were barely noted in the press, and when they were, Duke's fraternity brothers and USC teammates-- who served as groomsmen-- received more press than he. Six more years would change that. Still, he always honored his days at USC.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


The Duke

John Wayne. The name alone conjures countless representations. John Wayne is the eternal definition of the masculine identity. John Wayne is the absolute embodiment of the perfect cowboy. John Wayne is the unequaled, unparalleled standard of the movie star-- and he is all these things 32 years after his death. How did a shy, insecure, average-American boy become one of the most famous people who ever lived? Because he was just as equally composed of determination, integrity, and-- of course-- "true grit." The Western hero has nearly become a mockery in modern cinema-- lampooned, caricatured, and misconstrued. He is a great fiction that we no longer comprehend, at least not popularly. Explain then why in the latest poll, which tallied young America's favorite movie star, John Wayne is still listed as #1? Because, young, old, male, female, black, white, liberal, conservative, John still represents the heart of this great country, and our hearts are still with him.

Marion Mitchell Morrison as a young
football player.

Such limitless greatness was not apparent in Marion Robert Morrison's early years in Winterset, IA. Born to a charismatic, loving father, Clyde-- who worked primarily as a pharmacist-- and a harsh, detached mother-- who was never satisfied with either her eldest son or her husband-- Marion had few thoughts of grandeur in his youth. A repeating mantra in his head was that he simply wasn't good enough, at least not where mother Molly was concerned. In fact, Molly showed her displeasure by depriving Marion of his middle name, her father's, and giving it to her second born-- Robert Emmett Morrison. Marion became Marion Mitchell instead-- one of many events in his childhood that left him feeling ashamed and outcast. His one salvation was Clyde, who adored his son and taught him to play football, live right, work hard, and above all, be honest. These early life lessons would stick with Marion until the end. In life, he would trust and forge great friendships with men, and always remain wary of women, whom he could never fathom. Kind, gentlemanly, and respectful, he would fall in love rarely, put women on a pedestal, and leave them there, never able to completely surrender his heart. From the beginning, he was a "man's man." Though endowed with a natural tenderness and empathy, the home was not where he would find solace. He found his peace through work, beginning even in childhood where he became a very focused, model student. Garnering straight "A"s, he too accrued a great number of friends, surprising his mother by becoming popular with fellow students and-- especially after moving to Glendale, CA-- drooled after by co-eds who were lining up for a date with the tall, handsome teen. By this time, he was known as "Duke," a pet name derived literally from his pet Airedale. Locals had called the dog "Big Duke" and Marion "Little Duke." (One wonders if this influenced the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade writers. You know what I mean)? Because he found his given name "girly" and was equally tired of being picked on, Marion welcomed the change. For the rest of his life, he insisted that friends call him by his nickname.

John's good looks helped him land the lead in The Big Trail
but ironically he would not achieve fame until he had 
weathered a bit into the "man's man" ideal.

After earning a scholarship to play football at USC and enduring the break-up of his parents' marriage, Duke began studying for a law degree. Always a hard worker, he masterfully balanced his studies, football, social life, and several jobs to earn his keep. Disaster struck when he injured his shoulder while showing off for the girls at the beach in a body-surfing stunt gone wrong, which cost him his scholarship. Unable to afford the school that had no more use for him, he dropped out and went to work at Fox Studios where he had already been putting in some time as a prop boy and sometimes extra during the summer. Fate wanted Duke in the movies. After witnessing some of his childhood idols like Harry Carey and Tom Mix in action, Duke would get his own shot at fame. He would meet director John Ford, one of the most important people in his life, in 1926. Ford noticed the kid at work, heard he was a football player, and decided to play a prank on him. He asked Duke to get into position, then kicked him over. Though sweet-natured, Duke also had a temper and a willingness to fight. He challenged Ford to try his trick again, only this time, Duke tackled him. A lifetime friendship was born. Duke would work with Ford, continuing work as a prop boy where he learned to properly dress a set and give it as much character as the actors in it. He occasionally would stand in as a stunt performer, and sometimes Ford would even assign him small roles. However, another influential figure would give Duke his first break. Raoul Walsh would see the 6'4" youth unloading a truck and joking around when he decided that the Duke had the right combination of brawn and charm to be his leading man in The Big Trail. When offered a screen test, Duke replied with a "Sure, why not?" At the premiere, he invited both parents, but Molly refused to come unless Duke dis-invited his father. He refused, and Clyde and his proud step-mother attended what Duke hoped would be a life-changing moment. The role brought him a great deal of critical acclaim but failed to boost him into the mainstream. Despite his hopes, he would languish in B-movies for another 9 years. Yet, he had discovered himself as an actor, and he would throw the same amount of gusto into learning that craft as he had into everything else.

John was frequently miscast in his early cinematic attempts, 
including this bit part opposite Barbara Stanwyck 
in Baby Face.

The greatest tragedy of The Big Trail was losing his relationship with John Ford, who was both mentor and slave-driver. A sado-masochistic relationship, Ford supplied Duke with another father figure but was also harsh and critical like Duke's mother. Unlike Molly, however, Ford could be pleased, which is perhaps why Duke worked so hard to impress him. Yet, when Duke took on The Big Trail, Ford gave him the cold shoulder, perhaps feeling betrayed that his protege had wandered off to another director or perhaps just jealous of the younger man's success. The fracture in their relationship had its benefits, for Duke got one Hell of an education making B-Westerns for poverty row studios like Republic Pictures. Fast-paced, poorly-written cliffhangers and serials, John became a low-level star to the thousands of young boys and more rural clientele who enjoyed the simple, uncomplicated nature of low-budget flicks like Riders of Destiny and Rainbow Valley. Duke slowly lost his uncertainties and insecurities, learned how to think fast and keep up. He too started building a character: one with which he would be identified the rest of his life. The graceful beauty of his youthful good looks slowly began to harden into the more mature, macho adult that would make him a "real man" and not just a heartthrob, as he had originally been publicized. He copied the stilted and poignant line delivery of his hero Harry Carey-- creating that signature drawl with meaningful pauses-- friend Paul Fix would help him develop his rolling walk, and Yakima Canutt helped him perfect his stunt work and fights scenes. His cowboy was not clean and polished, nor flashy and cocky. He was a real guy. Comfortable on a horse and handy with a gun, the B-Westerns molded Duke, now known as John Wayne, into an actor but even moreso into the most important cowboy in cinematic history. John Ford was ready to forgive.

John finds stardom and his signature persona in Stagecoach
one of the greatest Westerns ever made.

Stagecoach was one of the many movies that made 1939 the biggest year of Hollywood cinema. It too would mark a turning point in Duke's life. Having already been in Tinsel Town for over a decade, he had worked long and hard for the great opportunity Ford now laid at his feet. In Stagecoach, his turn as the Ringo Kid would forever seal him into the American mind as our favorite cowboy. With a mixture of diligence and innocence, raw power and grace, he became a sensation. This film kicked a door open that would never again be slammed shut in his face. John went on to star in film after film, cementing his reputation and crafting his John Wayne character, which would harden over the years. As he aged as a man, his characters aged with him. Red River, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon-- they all came to define the masculine image. Embodied in Duke were the sacrifices man made for his country and countrymen. Justice, righteousness, and the risks and stakes in upholding these virtues were displayed in his persona. When America went to war, so too did Duke, who rotated between the saddle and the army when ideals of patriotism were the most needed. Critics started taking notice of his acting as he continued to prove himself through They Were Expendable, In Harm's Way, and The Sands of Iwo Jima, the latter of which earned him his first Academy Award nomination and also his place in cemented history at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. He represented to men the man they wanted to be and to women the man who would protect them, whose seemingly impenetrable heart made him all the more alluring. Though romance was never the most important thing on the agenda in his films, he proved to have great chemistry with Marlene Dietrich, Gail Russell, and most importantly Maureen O'Hara, who matched him step for step in strength, courage, and gumption.

John Ford had trouble getting financing for the little Irish film
The Quiet Man, but the electric chemistry of Duke and Maureen 
and the comedy of Barry Fitzgerald warmed America's heart. 

Duke worked hard to protect his screen image and to see that his ideals and sense of integrity were passed on in all of his roles. When he thought of testing the waters and entertaining more variety, Ollie Carey reminded him of the importance his solid presence dictated to audiences, and how much they relied on him-- like the rock of Gibraltar-- to remain their strong and steady savior. He remained faithful to this ideal, but it came at a price. He suffered through three failed marriages, though the last did not end in divorce but separation. He tried all kinds of women, wedding first the Virgin (Josephine Saenz), then the Whore (Chata Baur), and finally the Lady (Pilar Pallete), all of whom were "exotic," Spanish women who adhered to old-fashioned principals of a patriarchal family life. But because Duke grew up fearing the domestic lifestyle, he was never able to completely give himself over to any of the women that loved him. He regretted his broken family and the effect it had on what would grow into his brood of 7 children. In retrospect, he would wish that he had stayed with Josie-- who had proved to be the perfect mother and wife-- and was always guilty that he had unintentionally crafted the same unsavory home life for his children that he had had for himself. Though he always remained a good father, constantly bringing his children to set, and even working onscreen with son Patrick and producing with son Michael, he couldn't deny that his life was his work, and he found more solace with his team of men, "The Young Men's Purity and Total Abstinence and Snooker Pool Association" (of which John Ford, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, Johnny Weissmuller, and Robert Preston were a few of the drunken members) than he ever did at home. He was too itchy, too bored, too anxious. Life was outdoors, on a film set, or on his yacht: the Wild Goose. He knew well how to live. Loving, on the other hand-- as tender and kind a friend as he was to so many, both male and female-- was a craft too deep for him to fathom personally.

Always more cozy with the fellas: John, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson 
and Howard Hawks on the set of Rio Bravo, another triumph.

And he was adored, even when his politics began to chafe the majority. A Republican in Hollywood is never popular, particularly in the Vietnam years when Duke was currently at odds with the young, mainstream liberal movement that made a fossil out of his ideals. But while his convictions were strong, his agenda was not selfish. He made decisions based not on what was right or left, but what he felt to be right or wrong. An educated man who had spent a majority of his youth with his life buried in books and studies, his judgments-- whether one agreed or disagreed-- were based on sound reason, and he did from time to time ruffle the feathers of his own "party." For example, he tried to lighten up on the HUAC witch trial refugees who were looking for work, while others were less willing to forgive. Though Duke took a firm anti-communist stance, he also believed in forgiveness, and above all he didn't want to rob a man of his desire to work. His opinions were declared loud and clear, but what is less remarked on was his ability to listen. He did not judge a man for having an opposing view, and preferred it to someone who was by nature a "yes man." While his name was constantly dragged through the mud by people with more liberal sentiments, he never returned the favor. Jane Fonda publicly ridiculed him, but-- as he was friends with her father-- he only kidded her about it in public. Nancy Reagan would remember him as one of the gentlest men who ever lived, which is no surprise; but he too had the great respect of Katharine Hepburn-- as much a Democrat as he was a Republican. Kirk Douglas too enjoyed his company despite their vastly different outlooks, and he earned Barbara Walters's undying respect when he paid her a kindness early in her career. Despite any negative publicity he garnered for his views, still nothing could sully his reputation. People still loved him and looked up to him, from Bertolt Brecht to Emperor Hirohito.

Duke's diligence pays off at the 1970 Academy Awards, 
with Barbara Streisand.

Duke's popularity may have waned slightly from time to time, but it was always present. This is because he represented something beyond politics that every American could relate to, which was America itself. A man who loved his country and paid homage to the men willing to fight for its freedoms, he never let social agenda or controversy cloud this truth: that he lived in the greatest country in the world. When all the world had gone mad, when everything seemed to be going to Hell, Duke and his films could always be depended on to light the way to the simplest and purest of lessons in eras of even the greatest confusion. All a man needed was bravery, loyalty, and decency. While others were lost in the gray or seeing red, Duke always painted things in black and white. There is a hero; there is a villain. There is a right; there is a wrong. You do what is just, not what comes easiest. You take the path that leads to honor, not the one that is less rocky. His understated acting, where everything was relayed through his eyes, is often submerged beneath the caricature history has made of him. It would take him years, over forty in the business, to finally earn his Academy Award for Best Male Performance for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, and this he only earned by creating a character with great humor and mocking. But those who worked with him knew his genius long before, including Monty Clift who continually tried and failed to upstage him, never fully comprehending why he couldn't overshadow the Duke. Because... no one could. Burt Reynolds once said that John Wayne was "the only movie star [he'd] ever met that was not only exactly what [he] thought [he'd] be, but more." He remains our pillar of strength, our moral compass, our father, our leader, our friend. The last great American model, it seems, shall never crumble. Nor should it, even if it is to remind us of our great blessings. Left, Right, or Wrong, patriotism and love of country have no side. But they do share a face: a rugged, battle-worn one with thin blue eyes that can either freeze an enemy or warm a heart. God Bless America, and God Bless Hollywood for giving us John Wayne!