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Thursday, February 27, 2014


John Ireland and Monty Clift in Red River

Didja Know: that in Red River, the roles of Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) nearly went to Cary Grant and Gary Cooper respectively?! Can you imagine the competitive, scene-stealing machismo triple pack of John Wayne, Grant and Coop in one film!? I think the chemistry mixed better in the final product, don't you?

THE REEL REALS: Clifton Webb

Clifton Webb

Clifton Webb has a wonderfully unusual Hollywood success story. While he dabbled in film in his younger years and participated in some silent features, he would not hit it big until his breakthrough role in the iconic Laura when well into his '50s. If not recognized for his participation in that role, he is more classically remembered as the snooty yet surprisingly lovable know-it-all in the Mr. Belvedere, whom he played in a series of films. With his ever-polished look and impeccable style-- which labeled him as one of the "best dressed" men in Hollywood-- his poise and cynicism could easily be turned in his roles from wit and arrogance to that of a sinister viper at a moment's notice. He made comparatively few films in his career, mostly because of his late start, but his resume in the entertainment industry is actually quite hefty.

To understand Clifton, one has to know about his mother, Mabelle. Mabelle left her husband very soon after Clifton's birth, and her son would become her instant life partner. Their relationship was intensely close and-- one supposes-- emotionally overburdening to the growing boy. Clifton's identity would forever be attached to his mother, for whom he lived out all the ideal fairy tales of life on the stage. Clifton made his mother proud by working his way up from a nineteen-year-old ballroom dancer to a bona-fide Broadway thespian who worked with everyone from Al Jolson to Humphrey Bogart when treading the boards.

Eventually, he found his place in Hollywood, remaining a tactically closeted homosexual actor throughout his life and living with his mother until her death, after which he was inconsolable. He would only survive her a few years, but his performances in cinema hold up, which explains why they earned him three Oscar nods. His appearances in The Razor's Edge, Titanic, Sitting Pretty, and of course Laura have solidified his dignified and uncouth charms into the annals of history, which Mr. Belvedere himself would probably have to admit is at least moderately impressive.

THE REEL REALS: Cleo Ridgely

Cleo Ridgely

Cleo Ridgely was yet another interesting leading lady of the silent film era. With a soft but sturdy beauty, she projected an image of equal parts vulnerability and resilience. Though she performed in nearly 70 credited films between 1911 and 1951, her talent has become overshadowed over the years by bigger names and a bigger Hollywood. She made appearances most notably opposite leading men like Wallace Reid, in the Cinderella story of The Golden Chance, and had enough chutzpah to impress Cecil B. DeMille into handing her a supporting role in Joan the Woman.

Cleo came off as a regular girl. Perhaps her normalcy is what stopped her from being as infamous and lasting as her contemporaries. Still, there is a poetry in the simplicity with which she approached her roles. Elegant but not haughty, attractive but not glamorous, she had an immediate amiability that allowed her to transcend stereotype and just be a woman. She also wasn't afraid to get down and dirty, and as an experienced horsewoman, she often performed her own, quite dangerous stunts.

After her second marriage to James W. Horne (of Laurel and Hardy fame), she left the movies behind to be with family and raise her children. She did return intermittently over the years, generally in uncredited bit parts. As you hear no horror stories or scandals attached to her name, it is fair to assess that she lived without regret and simply preferred a life of stability to the crazy world of Hollywood. This is understandable, but as a viewer, you wish you had gotten to know her a little better through her work, of which there remains far too little.

THE REEL REALS: Claude Rains

Claude Raines

Claude Rains made his big cinematic breakthrough in the role in and as The Invisible Man. Over a decade earlier, he'd appeared in only one prior film. Claude was a true thespian, you see. He had little interest in cinema. Born into the land of theater and following in the footsteps of his actor father, he learned the ropes both on the stage and behind the curtain, building up quite the reputation for himself and even earning enough credentials to become a bona fide acting teacher. Born in Britain, Claude spent some time in New York treading the boards, both prior to and following the Great War.

As the talkies took hold, Hollywood began its earnest pursuit of performers with solid voices, and Claude certainly fit the bill. His seductive drawl was filled with implication, alluring and hypnotizing his audiences. The effect was that of the soft sands of an hourglass cascading down silkily on soon to be suffocating victims. Now running the full throttle Monster Train, Universal Studios was looking for an actor who could portray the demented, faceless doctor of the H.G. Wells science-fiction masterpiece with nothing but the power of vocals to maintain the audience's attention. Perhaps for that challenge alone, Claude accepted the part. It would change the course of his career and shape cinematic history.

Claude's Invisible hero is similar to Dr. Frankenstein-- he is on a passionate quest to unlock the secrets of man. However, he is a bit bolder than ol' Victor, as he uses himself as his own test subject. Things do not go as planned, and the doctors dreams of glory disappear with his own flesh. Strangely, the masking of the doctor in bandages to hide his now invisible form only serves to unmask his hidden diabolical nature, that of vanity, fury, and the fragile vulnerability of the human brain. Without his form, what is a man? Insanity unfurled, as it turns out-- a living ghost, an outcast, a shadowless shadow. Using tight and frenetic body language and the many levels of his soon to be infamous voice, Claude gave this anti-hero both shape and substance and found himself locked into the world of Hollywood, whether he liked it or not.

Claude would become a hero to Monster fans due to his involvement in The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Wolf Man, but his stone cold deliveries and calculating, "I'm ten steps ahead of you" demeanor would serve the industry well in an assortment of character roles. Often playing the arch nemesis or supporting, untrustworthy character, Claude would deliver us into the hands of evil or twist us up in his vicious mind games so adeptly that his villainy was nothing short of art.

Of course, the humanity and intelligence he put into his craft lifted his performances above that of the token sinister character. He too had heart. Therefore, he easily transitioned between his brokenhearted and vengeful wooer roles (Notorious, Deception), his legitimate good guy roles, (Now, Voyager), his questionably bad but somehow likable roles, (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood), and his all-out, corrupt jerks (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) with ease.

Claude could always be depended on to give a story more weight and significance, cementing it in reality and making it as fascinating and intricate as possible. There are layers, and then there are layers. His direct deliveries somehow made it easier to venture on the furthest stretches of the human imagination, which were dangerous but not as scary under his guidance. A veritable magician and craftsman, his potion still works like a tonic on us. He is one star who will never disappear.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

THE REEL REALS: Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee-- and his performances in the cult classic Hammer Films of  the late '50s onward-- is responsible for rebirthing, reintroducing, and redefining the horror genre. When the Universal horror monsters were put to rest by changing times and trends, terror began to mutate, at first comically in the B-horror/sci-fi films of the '50s, but later it reemerged with more of an edge. It became more... real, most particularly because people around the world could watch mankind at its most disturbingly violent as images of the Korean and Vietnam wars and the assassinations of JFK and MLK, Jr. appeared on their television sets. The world needed somewhere to direct their newfound fear both of each other and themselves. Lee became the focal point of this necessary displacement, and he continues to serve our blackest natures honorably-- the Dark Prince from the other side of our collective psyche.

After serving in WWII and studying the classical languages of Greek and Latin, Christopher decided to chase his artistic passions by becoming an actor.  After performing in film and television for a decade, he would find his cinematic soulmate and co-star Peter Cushing when he signed at Hammer Films. After their collaboration in The Curse of Frankenstein, they would partner in over twenty films, and a more visceral, violent, and sexual brand of mythological barbarity would thus be witnessed and embraced by increasingly fascinated filmgoers. Though his portrayal as Frankenstein's monster would initiate Lee's position in the annals of horror history, he is most often remembered for his countless appearances as Count Dracula. Much more savage, brutal, and animalistic than his popular predecessor, Bela Lugosi, Lee delivered a frightening interpretation of the infamous bloodsucker-- one desperate, lustful, and utterly, unabashedly demoniacal. 

Unless one is living on a desert island, he or she is bound to have seen a Christopher Lee film, because at the age of 91 this guy is still going strong. Most recently, his appearances in box office phenomenons like The Lord of the Rings series as well as the prequel Star Wars episodes 1-3 have solidified his reputation with modern audiences. Forever counted upon to render a devilish side of sinister to whatever role he embraces, the gravity of his talent and his integrity as an actor make his performances all the more horrifying. He never merely puts on the costume but fully fleshes out and psychologically transforms into the three dimensional villain of our worst nightmares. Even when presented as a good guy, the audiences waits for the Hyde inside him to reveal himself. As fearful as that side may be, it is exactly what we buy the tickets for. Whether battling, Dr. Frankenstein, Van Helsing, or a disembodied hand, Lee's presence makes the ensuing action much more interesting, and his resulting films are continually sought by legions of his addicted fans. He is, I suppose, the "crack" of cult cinema.

THE REEL REALS: Chester Conklin

Chester Conklin
Chester Conklin did not attain the lasting marketability of many of his contemporaries, but he is no less a comic legend. Creating for himself a recognizable character with a large, bushy, "walrus" mustache and round spectacles, he definitely stood out from the pack as movies began to hit their stride at the turn of the century. Everyone had a schtick in those days: Fatty had his weight, Keaton had his stone face and pork pie hat, Chaplin had his tramp suit and mini 'stache. Later, Groucho Marx would adapt and lampoon this token comic commodity by giving himself a grease mustache. Yet, a comedian needs more to recommend him than his makeup and wardrobe, and it was Chester's innate instinct for comic timing, absurd improvisation, and lovable mugging that helped him edge his way to the front of the gag pack. 

After leaving his home state of Iowa, where he had only a bleak future in the church to look forward to, Chester started traveling on the vaudeville circuit, learning the ropes, and improving upon them. The character he developed-- the one audiences would become most familiar with-- was in fact based upon a former boss. A baker. By exaggerating the crazed nuances of this man's personality, Chester was able to build a bumbling, pompous, and forever foiled buffoon. His wide eyes, forever shocked at the chaotic world around him, and his contorted and often curmudgeonly faces were at once reassuring and cathartic to audiences-- who shared his befuddled assessments that modern life was ridiculous. 

Chester had no shame in making himself the butt of the joke. His films were never as much about unlikely heroism-- like Keaton-- or the triumph of social consciousness-- like Chaplin. He was purely about side-splitting pranks. This is perhaps why he would later lose some of his leading man stature to become the just as important, reliable, supporting gaff guy in other pictures. He was more of a contributory piece of the puzzle than the maestro putting it all together. Nonetheless, his enjoyable performances remain timeless.

While many know him only as the unfortunate co-worker whom the Tramp accidentally sucks into the mad machine of Modern Times, Chester was better known at his zenith as a partner in crime with fellow performer Mack Swain. He also has the prestige of being one of Mack Sennett's infamous "Keystone Cops" and performing alongside Mabel Normand in many of her own comic capers. He additionally bandied up onscreen with surly funnyman W.C. Fields, appeared in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (though his scenes were some of the many eventually cut), and kept himself busy in the talkies thanks to Preston Sturges, who cast him in many of his features. 

However, times were tough for an old hat comedian as the motion picture industry grew, and Chester soon found himself edged out of the game. Yet, in looking back at the early world of cinematic comedy, he seems to be everywhere. He may not have been the biggest name but he always pops up, often unexpectedly. This makes him, I suppose, an alternative to the old adage, "Wherever you go, there you are." With Chester, it's "Wherever you look, there he is!" As such, he is an important piece of the funny fabric of moviedom, where audiences can still rest assured that whenever he's around, it won't be dull.

THE REEL REALS: Charles Stevens

Charles Stevens

Little is known about Charles Stevens. Despite his anglicized name, the actor was half Mexican/half-Apache  and the great grandson of none other than the notorious Geronimo himself. (Charles even portrayed his great grandfather on the screen a couple of times). Few are familiar with his face, though true movie aficionados have probably ignorantly scanned over him many times as a periphery player, particularly in the silent films of Douglas Fairbanks-- a close friend to Charles. The duo probably met while filming The Lamb, Doug's first feature. Immediately fascinated by Charles's roots, Doug would become his great champion, and after his own gravy train came in, he insisted on having his pal cast in nearly all his films. 

As a non-caucasian, the possibility for career advancement or stardom was incredibly difficult for Charles. This was a time when racism edged non-caucasians out of the market and different races could barely interact at all on-screen, let alone in romantic leading roles. As such, white actors simply used cosmetics or painted their skin to resemble other races when a non-white character had a more prominent part in a the film, and blacks, Asians, Mexicans, etc, were relegated to doing extra work or possibly winning some screen time as a mildly featured player. It makes Charles all the more impressive, therefore-- although lesser remembered-- for boasting such an impressive resume. With his distinctive, sinister look and the proper connections, Charles was able to work steadily for nearly his entire adulthood, and due to his silent short film participation, he completed more than 200 projects. Sadly, his mixed race left him almost consistently uncredited. Look for him in The Mark of Zorro, The Gaucho, and The Mummy's Curse.

THE REEL REALS: Cedric Gibbons

Cedric Gibbons

One would be hard pressed to find an MGM feature film in the 1920s-1950s bracket that doesn't have Cedric Gibbons listed as "Art Director" in the opening credits. This guy got around the Lot, his work in design and aesthetic composition-- from set dressing to architectural conception-- almost single-handedly defining the Golden Era of the studio's look. With an eye for detail and a gift for creating a visual texture befitting each project's subliminal and environmental realities, he quickly built up a reputation as the head honcho of MGM's art department. 

So totally had Cedric ingratiated himself to the studio's function and reputation, that he was given a contractual stipulation crediting his name to every MGM feature release. This explains why he has over 1000 projects on his resume, though he may have merely supervised or signed off on a great many of them. He primarily got his crafty hands dirty during the beginning of his career. Yet, during his reign, he was such a staple of the Hollywood elite, that he was just as popular and well-known around town as any of the stars, many of whom would call him friend. Indeed, he was even married to Dolores del Rio for a time, a woman so beautiful that he probably wished that he had designed her himself.  

As well as being an instrumental figure in giving credence to cinema as an art form through his steadfast work, he also saw to it that honor would be forever bestowed upon this burgeoning industry, its innovations, and its talents, by signing up with other fellow soldiers like Douglas Fairbanks to create The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. In fact, he designed the trophy that would later be labeled "Oscar." This Irish lad passed away in Hollywood after his many decades of loyal service at the age of 67, leaving a legacy behind him that all cinematic artists continue to build upon and re-envision every generation.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


I just published an article concerning the movie remake on my other, fairly new blog: Modernity Absurdity. It delves more into contemporary cinema, but I thought I would repost it here as well. How often can you dream the same dream before it becomes a Nightmare (on Elm Street 8,736)?

~     ~     ~


So does Officer Alex Murphy...


Hollywood is an apathetic motherf*cker. 

Pardon my font. Trust me, that was not an easy statement for me to make. Anyone who has known me for .007 seconds knows that cinema has been my life. I’ve devoted over half of my 30 years to it. I'll admit it: I squandered my youth. “Que Sera Sera.” #Hitchcock #Doris Day. (See what I mean)? 

Anyway, this fascination with the movies is what brought me to Hollywood over eight years ago. The idea of contributing to a world that as a child, a teen, and a young adult, I had deemed to be beautiful, and compelling, and full of new ideas, was beyond alluring. I wanted to devote my life to spreading the message that we, as human beings, are all on this sinking ship together. Movies— and all forms of storytelling, be they musical, literary, visual, etc— bridge the gap between humans. Entertainment offers solace. It is the opportunity to experience another version of yourself and exercise your empathy or, at the very least, give your daily stresses a cathartic sigh of relief. 

At least that’s the way I used to see it. These days, unless it’s awards season-- a time during which socially provocative or mentally stimulating films are given a brief day in the sun (in the dark womb of the theater)— there aren't too many released that tickle my pocketbook. Hollywood has, despite Gwen Stefani’s sound advice, gotten it “twisted.” It has traded creation for re-creation, which funnily enough is not conducive to inspiring the average American citizen to devote their recreational time to movie-going. Why pay to see something you’ve already seen, particularly if it wasn’t good the first time? Or second time? Or third time...?

The oft repeated Casablanca quotation, "Play it again, Sam" is actually a very telling cinema trivia faux pas. It's a misquote. The correct line is, "Play it once Sam... For old time's sake." However, this blunder is but one of our many iconic movie moments to have been misconstrued, unconsciously abused, and overly homaged into the realm of cheesiness, which people innocently throw out at parties for a laugh. Hollywood has a tendency to commit this fraud in its own way. It replicates an old idea, old joke, or old storyline to the nauseating point of no return. Except, it does return, over, and over, and over again. Thus, poor, metaphorical 'Sam' will be stuck at that damn piano/laptop pounding out the same old song and dance ad infinitum because, apparently, we are all out of ideas. 
To read more click here.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht was a prolific author and a very influential figure in the land of Hollywood screenwriting. His intense passion for and curiosity of life began at an early age. Forced to raise himself in many ways due to his parents' job demands, he allowed his own thirst for knowledge and experience to be his guides to maturity. A child prodigy, his keen intelligence and the ease with which he picked up new ideas and talents won him early respect and equally enriched his lonesome early life. He excelled in the violin; he joined the circus. Finally, at sixteen, he ran away from home and began treading the pavements of Chicago as a journalist. By the age of 21, he had written his first novel: Erik Dorn.

Fast forward through many plays, short stories, and further articles, and by 1926, Hecht found himself in Hollywood, (allegedly due to a tip from writer friend Herman Mankiewicz). While critically successful, the writer is ever the starving artist, so Hecht jumped at the chance to earn money through the new medium of "screenplays." With the talkie revolution encroaching, his particular talent would ease this rocky transition with witty, intelligent, and provocative scripts that paved the way for future screenwriters and scenarists. Dialogue was truly a new phenomenon, as the silent era had either entrusted actors with improvisation based upon a general plotline or had otherwise given them a loose script to work with or without. Words meant little in those days when title card writers were as close to literature as film writing got, but those days were about to change. During his tenure in Hollywood, Ben managed to win the first ever Academy Award for Best Screenplay for 1927's Underworld. Other classics were to follow, which were either the result of his solo gifts or partial contribution-- the latter case in which other writers, directors, etc. asked him to assist on their scripts, which he unfailingly improved.

Examples of his work include: The Front Page (1937), Beast of the City, Scarface (1932), Queen Christina, Twentieth Century, The Prisoner of Zenda, A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred, Angels with Dirty Faces, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Gilda, Gone with the Wind, Journey into Fear, The Man with the Golden Arm, and-- as a Hitchcock favorite-- Lifeboat, Spellbound, Notorious, Foreign Correspondent, Rope, Strangers on a Train, etc. As a political activist, particularly during the forties when he wrote tirelessly about the rising anti-Semitism and eventual Jewish extermination in Germany, the only hiccup he seemed to run into with his writing was censorship. A man who palled around with irreverent men like Mankiewicz, John Decker, John Barrymore, Howard Hawks, and even Mickey Cohen (whom he aided in an aborted biographical project), the great wound to his pride was in writing anything less than the truth. His irritation with this was but one of the demons that haunted him throughout his career. H was a man forever hard on himself and always, always pushing for more.

With countless works of art under his belt-- novels, plays, essays, short stories, screenplays, etc-- Ben passed away after suffering a heart attack at the age of 70. He was nearly finished with his adaptation of Casino Royale, which would have been the first serious 007 film. Indeed, it was produced, but his drama of espionage was altered and turned into a spoof-comedy. One wonders what would have happened had another writer and another actor other than Connery initiated "James Bond" into the modern mainstream. In any case, his work has, and still does, provide the backbone of truly great writing, most specifically for our purposes in the land of cinema. Who better to have brought us out of the silence than a man who pulled no punches with words?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

THE REEL REALS: Anne Bancroft

Anne Bancroft

Anne Bancroft was a damn fine actress. That's it. The End. Have a nice day.

I joke, but that's how her talent hits. Each of the characters she created in her 50+ years on the screen-- not to mention those she made on the stage-- were truly unique and particular unto themselves, yet they all possessed the same power. Whether her heroines would sock you in the jaw, kick you in the gut, or leave you weeping with a withering glare, as a viewer, you cannot help but be moved by the entrancing spell she was able to cast.

Anne cut her teeth on-camera doing the standard TV series of the '50s that all actors of her generation seemed to participate in. Her name and face appeared on the "Ford Theatre" program, and she performed in slew of guest spots on various series. Her film "debut" was in Don't Bother to Knock of 1952, wherein she performed opposite none other than Marilyn Monroe. While no one could steal the show from that iconic, blond bombshell, Anne acted as an interesting counterbalance on the screen. Even in her first, small role, her thoughtfulness, intelligence, and depth, were revealed, which ironically caused her to be a fish out of water in Tinsel Town. 

Studios, not knowing what to do with the Bronx-born Italian with a good head on her shoulders, continually miscast her in ridiculous films far beneath her talent, one example being Demetrius and the Gladiators. (Really, Hollywood? Really)? Within these flimsy story lines, there was no social commentary, no introspection, and no soulful revelation in the parts she was given. As such, she quickly tired of the charade and opted to tread the boards of the Broadway stage in search of her art and herself. She found it. The reputation she built there would finally prove just what she was capable of. In fact, she won a Tony for her debut in "Two for the See-Saw." The world that had tried to incorrectly package her soon stood back in awe at the authentic and unapologetically raw woman she just naturally was.

Almost as soon as her departure from the West Coast, Hollywood came crawling back, particularly after her astounding performance in "The Miracle Worker" as Annie Sullivan, the role she would reprise in the adapted film. Her tough, unrepentant, compassionate, and personally tormented performance as Helen Keller's notorious teacher shocked and impressed audiences across the nation, earning her a Best Actress Oscar (and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her co-star, Patty Duke). More gut-wrenching portayals were to follow, including her depressed housewife, existentially lost in her confining domesticity in The Pumpkin Eaters, a role in her husband Mel Brooks's Silent Movie, and other knock down, drag out performances in To Be or Not to Be, Agnes of God, Home for the Holidays, Great Expectations, and her most notorious masterwork: The Graduate

Portraying the iconic "Mrs. Robinson," Anne was an isolated and forgotten tragic figure, a woman discarded before her time, and also a vengeful and desperate panther, her red nails clawing violently for some last sense of gravity in her life. The tension between herself-- a woman on the way out, with resistance-- and Dustin Hoffman's "Ben Braddock"-- a young man on the way up, with resistance-- was so turbulent, poetic, heartbreaking, and doomed, that the nature of their relationship spoke volumes above his eventual, hypothetical absolution with her daughter (Katharine Ross). What Ben had with Elaine was fantasy. What he had with Mrs. Robinson was real. As in all of her roles, Anne was fearlessly vulnerable and even blood curdling. For this, she won another Oscar.

Anne worked continuously into her final years, on both the stage and screen, until she sadly succumbed to uterine cancer at the age of 73. Leaving behind her mourning husband-- the clown who had always tempered her pathos-- she too left that strange hole in cinema that only the greatest members of its tapestry can manifest. Just as in her work, he parting acted as a gaping wound that one must simply make peace with and allow to heal. Her caliber comes along very rarely, and the welcomed trauma such a one inflicts is made worthy by the mind-opening awareness left in her wake. "Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson."