Friday, March 27, 2015

In Memoriam: Gregory Walcott

"Now You Just Hold On, Buster"

By Ed Garea

He was an accomplished actor who appeared in such notable films as Mister RobertsThe Eiger SanctionNorma Rae, and Midway. He romanced Claudette Colbert in Texas Lady (1955), portrayed hard-as-nails drill instructors in Battle Cry (1955) and Delbert Mann’s The Outsider (1960), and was Gene Hackman’s psychopathic brother in Prime Cut (1972). He worked with such noted filmmakers as Raoul Walsh, John Ford, Clint Eastwood, and Steven Spielberg.


And yet, for all that, he is probably best known among cinephiles for the role of pilot Jeff Trent in Ed Wood’s cult classic, Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Gregory Walcott passed away at his home in Canoga Park, Los Angeles, California, on March 20, 2015. His son, Men in Black puppeteer Todd Mattox, announced his death, which was attributed to natural causes. Walcott was 87.

For years afterward, Walcott avoided any reference to Plan 9 like the plague. In an interview with a reporter, he stated, “I will go to my grave not remembered for those meaty roles I did for the likes of John Ford or Steven Spielberg, but as the leading man in a film that many movie historians regard as the worst of all time. It's enough to drive a Puritan to drink!”

However, in recent years, his attitude softened greatly to the point where he made a cameo appearance in Tim Burton’s 1995 biopic, Ed Wood. He explained his position to the L.A. Times in 2000, “I didn't want to be remembered for (Plan 9). But it's better to be remembered for something than for nothing, don't you think?”

How Walcott came to star in Wood’s “masterpiece” is a story that like all stories connected with the film, is decidedly offbeat. In a 1998 interview for Filmax magazine, Walcott said he was approached by a friend, fledgling producer J. Edwards Reynolds, about starring in a sci-fi film opposite Bela Lugosi. “But Ed,” I replied, “Bela Lugosi is dead.” He was told not to worry, for director Ed Wood was going to use footage he shot of Lugosi before his death, and the footage would be blended into the film.

I refused at first,” Walcott said. “I read the script, and it was gibberish. It made no sense, but I saw Ed Reynolds as a naive, sweet man. I had done some pretty good things before that, so I thought I had a little credibility in Hollywood. I thought maybe my name would give the show some credibility. … The film was made surreptitiously. My agent didn’t even know I did it.”


The road for Greg Walcott was one many actors had trod. He was born Bernard Wasdon Mattox on January 13, 1928, in Wendell, North Carolina, outside Raleigh. He was raised in the nearby town of Wilson, where his father was a furniture salesman. He enlisted in the U.S. Army toward the end of World War II, and also saw action in the Korean War.

After leaving the service, his restless spirit took over and with a $100 in his pocket, he hitchhiked from the East Coast to California to pursue a dream of an acting career. Once there he studied the craft under Ben Bard. An agent spotted Walcott in a little theater play and helped him land his first movie role in Red Skies of Montana (1952). A couple of years later, he made something of a splash as a Marine Corps drill instructor in Raoul Walsh’s Battle Cry (1955), and the studio, Warner Brothers, signed him to a contract.

Aside from his role as Deputy Jess Foley in Texas Lady (1955), Walcott worked mainly in television with occasional film roles, mainly in Westerns, such as Warner Brothers’ Badman’s Country (1958), where he played Bat Masterson.

Then came Plan 9.


Walcott shot the film in late 1956 into the first part of 1957. As mentioned before, he took the role as a favor to J. Edwards Reynolds, a fellow member of his Baptist church who Wood conned into putting up the money for the film. Luckily for Walcott, the film took two years to find a distributor, and less than 20 release copies were struck, because the distributor, DCA, made Reynolds foot the cost of prints. It wouldn’t have made a difference at any rate, for the film played a week at most to empty houses. In 1961, it made its debut as late night fodder on independent TV stations. Thus, practically no one in the business knew Walcott appeared in it until the ‘70s, when the Medved Brothers gave the film a splash of publicity by naming it as the Worst Movie Ever Made in their book, The Golden Turkey Awards. Since then, Plan 9 and its director have become pop culture icons.

Regarding Walcott, in 1958, he appeared in a film almost as gruesome, critically speaking, as Plan 9. That would be Jet Attack (1958) from director Edward L. Cahn. Walcott is one of three pilots (with John Agar and James Dobson) sent behind North Korean lines to rescue a scientist held prisoner. There, they encounter a mysterious Russian nurse (Audrey Totter) who ultimately helps them in their mission, for she has fallen in love with Agar. (Yes, I know.)

In 1961, he won acclaim as drill instructor Sgt. Kiley in the Universal film The Outsider, the story of Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima. Walcott was third-billed behind star Tony Curtis (as Hayes) and James Franciscus. Later that year, Walcott co-starred as Det. Roger Havilland in NBC’s police drama 87thPrecinct (1961-62), based on the novels of Ed McBain.

Other prestige films he made during the ‘60s include On the Double (1961), with Danny Kaye, and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), with Gregory Peck. Most of the paychecks during the decade were earned guest starring on television series, mainly Westerns such as Rawhide (5 appearances), The High Chaparral (2 appearances), The Big Valley, Alias Smith and Jones, and Bonanza (7 appearances).

In the ‘70s, he hooked up with Clint Eastwood, having earlier worked with the actor-director on Rawhide. He appeared in Joe Kidd (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975), and Every Which Way But Loose (1978). He said in later interviews that he enjoyed working for Eastwood, but noted that his character was the tough guy who was beaten thoroughly to a pulp by the star in the films.


Besides the Eastwood quartet, other major pictures Walcott appeared in included Prime Cut (1971), with Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman, Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974), Midway (1976), with Charlton Heston, and Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1978), where he had a memorable role who hauls away Sally Field’s character during the famous protest scene.

Again, the bulk of his work in both the ‘70s and ‘80s came from television, where he frequently guest starred on series from Baretta, to The Six Million Dollar Man, to Dallas. His last appearance came in a cameo role as a potential backer in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).

On the personal side, Walcott was married twice, first to Martha Garland, from 1948 to 1953, and later to Barbara May Watkins, to whom he was introduced at a party by Western legend Dale Evans. He married Barbara in 1954 and the marriage lasted for 55 years until her death in June 2010.

He also published a memoir, “Hollywood Adventures: The Gregory Walcott Story,” in 2003.

In addition to son Todd Mattox, Walcott's survivors include his daughters Jina and Pam and several grandchildren.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dinner and a Movie: Cinderella

Friday Fantasy and Fish

By Steve Herte

St. Patrick’s Day came inconveniently on a Tuesday this year and effectively nixed my normal karaoke night. Thanks to my friend Henri, who learned about the event from his friend, I was invited to a Saturday evening Karaoke Coffee House event at a Knights of Columbus hall in Jackson Heights. The hosts, a married couple with endless personalities whom I would have expected to have met at Woodstock, knew of Gabby O’Hara’s and my regular KJ, Dave, as well as many of the more famous karaoke friends I’ve made.

It was an evening of animated features and CGI this past Friday. The art of animation has definitely improved on Disney’s side of the equation, though Warner’s will forever retain the comedy crown. But computer graphics are gradually insinuating formerly impossible characters into “live” movies with greater accuracy and believability. Now all we need are better writers and actors who can do justice to the scripts.

Frozen Fever (Walt Disney Pictures, 2015) – Directors: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee. Voices: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, & Jonathan Groff. Color, 8 minutes.

In this animated short, it’s Anna’s (Bell) birthday and Elsa (Menzel) wants to celebrate it in grand style, but she’s coming down with a cold (fancy that). Every time she sneezes, she creates little snowmen that constantly try to eat the multi-layered ice-cream cake she prepared. Olaf (Gad) the snowman and Kristoff (Groff) along with Sven the reindeer try to help with the set-up but wind up constantly guarding the cake and herding throngs of cute little snow people. Olaf is so taken with his new “little brothers” that he names all of them and eventually escorts them to Elsa’s ice palace for safekeeping.

The party is a big success but the biggest gift of all for Anna is taking care of Elsa as she succumbs to a fever (definitely fantasy – the Ice Queen with a fever) and must be put to bed. It’s a charming but silly story with beautiful animation and a new song, “Making Today a Perfect Day.”

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Cinderella (Walt Disney Pictures, 2015) – Director: Kenneth Branagh. Writer: Chris Weitz (s/p). Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, & Eloise Webb. Color, 105 minutes.

Just when I thought it was safe to watch a Disney movie . . .


This is a remake of Cinderella as a non-animated film, and quite unnecessary. I was perfectly happy with the original 1950 animated version and the 1965 production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical. They are delightful. Nevertheless, I went to see this film wondering what new things could be done with the story.

My lack of expectations was rewarded with a back-story at the beginning of the movie. Narrated by Carter, who later turns up as a slightly ditzy Fairy Godmother, it describes the happy life Ella (Webb), at 10 years old, had with her father (Chaplin) and mother (Atwell) in their lovely house on the outskirts of the kingdom.

Even at this early age, Ella was able to communicate with animals, computer generated creatures that were the one marvel of this film as they were seamlessly integrated with the live actors and yet retained their identity as animals (never speaking). Ella’s mother taught her daughter to believe everything, especially magical things. Her father loved to be with his daughter but was compelled to be away from home on long trips to provide for the family, much to Ella’s dismay.

But all is not always rosy. Ella’s mother develops an undiagnosed fatal medical condition, which leaves a very sad husband and daughter. With her dying breath she gives her daughter the sage advice, “Always be courageous and kind,” a phrase that will be repeated ad nauseam throughout the movie.

Ella grows up to young womanhood (James) and all is nice again until one day her father announces that he intends to wed a recently widowed woman with two daughters of her own. It’s his “second chance” and Ella is happy for him. Cue the entrance of the soon to be stepmother (Blanchett), Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). From the onset, these three highborn wannabes have nothing but disdain for the house, its furnishings and Ella.

Then, one day, father has go on another of his trips. Drisella and Anastasia ask him to bring back parasols and beauty cream. Ella asks only for a piece of the first tree branch that brushes his shoulder. Her gift is the only thing that makes it home.

With no money coming in, the stepmother dismisses the household staff and replaces them with Ella. When Ella offers her bedroom to Drisella and Anastasia she’s curtly thanked and relegated to the attic, which is too cold in winter, so Ella sleeps by the dying embers of the fire in the kitchen. The ashes on her face the next morning inspire Drisella to call her “Cinder-Ella.”

The three continue to mistreat Ella until one day in frustration she gallops away on a horse into the forest where she’s confronted by the largest computer-generated stag I’ve ever seen. Hearing huntsmen in the distance, Ella tells the stag to flee and it does. Something spooks her horse and they gallop off, only to be rescued by the Prince (Madden) himself. He’s captivated by her from the start but conceals his royalty by introducing himself as “Kit” the apprentice. The rest of the story you know.

One of the few high points of the movie – and the only humorous part – is when the Fairy Godmother does her magic. “Have you any fruits or vegetables? Squash? Kumquat?” “We have pumpkins.” Using the Disney-requisite “Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo!” she turns a pumpkin into a coach (while still inside the greenhouse – bad idea), the mice (one named Gus) into four white horses, two lizards into footmen (one played by Tom Edden) and a goose into a coachman (Gareth Mason). “I don’t know how to drive one of these – I’m a goose!”

Most of the dialogue is sappy and trite. It’s a wonder they managed to get Jacobi to play the king. The music is spectacular, soaring and beautiful and goes perfectly with the elaborate – almost baroque – sets. Otherwise, Cinderella is an over-the-top fashion show set to a fairy tale with great CGI effects. The costume department is to be commended – probably will win the movie’s only Oscar – for pushing the envelope to the breaking point in design. It’s a wonder the prince doesn’t trip over the acres of blue gown Cinderella wears to the ball. It’s also a wonder that that dress fits into the carriage. Her glass slippers looked as if created by Swarovski.

It’s the perfect film for little girls and Barbie dolls. As for acting, Blanchett did a sterling job considering the stock lines she was given and Jacobi was marvelous. All else, well, they were there.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Cull & Pistol Oyster Bar
75 Ninth Avenue (in Chelsea Market at 15th Street)New York

Aside from it being a seafood restaurant, the very name of this small oyster bar tucked away in New York’s Chelsea Market was an intriguing come-on. On the website I learned that both are fish monger terms. A cull is a lobster that has lost one of its claws. A pistol is a lobster that has lost both of its claws, probably due to predators. Appropriately, the Cull & Pistol Oyster Bar is located next to a restaurant called The Lobster Place.

Being a snowy night (hopefully the last we’ll see for the season), I took the 14th Street “L” subway line from the theater to Eighth Avenue (the last stop). The snow made walking problematic, and it took me a while to locate the correct corner. But where was the restaurant? It had to be in the Chelsea Market. I wandered a little through the shopping-mall-like space and asked the security guard, who replied, “Straight ahead, on your right, next to the waterfall.” They have an indoor waterfall? I followed his directions and didn’t stop until I heard the sound of gushing water. In a corner “grotto” made of bricks was more like a broken water-main pipe leaking into a pool below. This is a waterfall? Only in New York.


As I entered I saw two gentlemen. One asked if I had a reservation. I said had one at 7:45 pm, which it was at that time. He led me to the last stool at the bar and proudly indicated the coat-hooks located under the tin-covered surface. For this I made a reservation? It was a backless stool, but one without a table or a wall to lean on, bolted to the floor and therefore immobile. I had to arrange my stuff and myself to achieve a modicum of comfort while purging my brain of the thought that I had just been cleverly insulted (again).

But, as I’ve stated before, and must keep reminding myself, I’ve been to the best, now I’m going to the rest. My server, perky, dark-haired Jess, who reminded me of a young Liza Minnelli with a pierced lower lip, brought me the menu and wine list, along with a jug of water with the restaurant name emblazoned on it. I asked what gins she had. Surprisingly I’ve never heard of any she listed, mostly organic or herbal. But then she suggested Hayman’s London Dry Gin. How have I not heard of an English distillery that has been in existence since 1863? It was excellent and the resulting martini (I didn’t have to tell her “stirred, not shaken”) was equal to any Beefeater martini I’ve had. Things were looking up.

Although the restaurant was not particularly dark per se, I had difficulty reading the menu. The bold black font used for the dish titles was small and just about readable on the cinnamon brown background. The normal font describing the dishes was even smaller and might as well have been invisible. I considered getting my mini-flashlight out, but that was inside my shoulder bag, which was hanging on the hook under the bar and was trapped by my coat hanging over it. Too much effort was involved in extracting it. I used the votive candle in front of me. Still, it wasn’t easy, and I told Jess how difficult it was to read the menu.

From the menu I gathered that most New Yorkers do not observe Lenten abstinence; nearly every seafood appetizer was paired inextricably with ham, bacon or pancetta. When Jess told me the special of the day, it also paired fish with meat. I was beginning to feel trapped again. I explained my dilemma to Jess. She seemed to understand and pointed out dishes where meat did not figure as even a garnish. I selected three courses.

The wine list was equally cryptic to me and before my eyes crossed permanently, I asked Jess for a chardonnay. She consulted the resident expert and they recommended the 2012 Heroine Chardonnay from the Iconic Winery on the Sonoma Coast. It was exactly what I wanted, crisp, golden and light but with a sturdy flavor and an intriguing label featuring a Batgirl-like visage.


My first course was an endive salad – with valdeon bleu cheese, ruby red grapefruit slices, watermelon radish thinly sliced into fans, fried almonds, and lemon dressing. I love endives. They make a salad into finger-food. You can scoop up the other ingredients on a leaf of endive and enjoy all the flavors together. I found out that almonds (not my favorite nut) taste a lot better when they’ve been fried. That with the marvelous pairing of bleu cheese and grapefruit made this salad fun as well as delicious.

The second course was the hearty scallop and mussel chowder – house-smoked scallops, leeks, purple potatoes, celery root, and chili oil. “Did you see bacon listed under the ingredients? I didn’t either,” I commented to Jess. “It’s OK,” she said, “You didn’t know.” It was wonderful, though not a quite authentic, chowder. The purple potatoes, though tasty, were a little jarring but the mussels were sweet and tender and the scallops were appropriately unassertive except for their smoky flavor. The bacon ruled.

On Jess’ recommendation, I chose the salt baked whole fish – Mediterranean Dorado (they used the more colorful but affected term “Dorade”), lemon thyme, and garlic marinade as a main course over the Lobster Pho (pronounced “feu,” meaning fire) – a Vietnamese dish with vermicelli noodles, mussels, hake, chili, Vietnamese coriander, mint, lime, and bean sprouts.


The headless fish was served, skin on, atop a bed of salt with its tail end buried in golden-baked salt. Sprigs of thyme were stuffed inside the fish. The meat was pure white, juicy and tender, not as salty as I expected or as over herbed from the thyme, just perfect. I have one caution about this dish, well, actually two. The first is to be constantly aware of small bones. They turn up around the edges of the fish unexpectedly. The second caution is to be aware that the fish is resting on pure sea salt, which is the same color as the fish flesh. Be careful what you pop into your mouth. I got a couple of mouths-full of salt – not pleasant. However, do be sure to attack the meat on the underside of the rib cage. The better half of the fish is there. I had a great time.

I sided the fish with Brussels sprouts with caramelized shallots and aged Gouda cheese sprinkled on top. Excellent.

I was rapidly becoming sated, and the wooden stool was reminding my body that it was still there. So, in order to relieve the numbness I was beginning to feel in my nether parts, I eschewed dessert and after dinner drinks in favor of paying the check and leaving. Cull & Pistol is a great place to eat providing you are of age 20 to 35 and arrive (with a reservation – the place was packed the whole time I was there) in a group of four. There are no tables for two and certainly none for one. More than likely I will not return to this place because of the uncomfortable seating, but I thank Jess for her efforts to make me less so.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, March 23, 2015

In Memoriam: Albert Maysles

It's Just a Shot Away

By Ed Garea

The world of documentary film lost one of its giants with the passing of Albert Maysles, who, along with his late brother David, was one of the giants of their unique American version of cinema verite, as illustrated in such films as SalesmenGrey Gardens, and Gimme Shelter.

To honor Mr. Maysles, TCM will air an evening of his documentaries tonight beginning at 8:00 pm.

Maysles died on March 5 of this year at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.



The Maysles Brothers were known for their departure from the usual documentary conventions in that they did not interview their subjects. As Albert explained it in a 1994 interview with The New York Times, “Making a film isn’t finding the answer to a question; it’s trying to capture life as it is."

He was born Albert H. Maysles in Boston on Nov. 26, 1926. His parents were both Jewish immigrants. His father, who emigrated from the Ukraine, was a postal clerk, and his mother, originally from Poland, was a schoolteacher.

The family lived in Dorchester and later moved to suburban Brookline, where Albert and younger brother David grew up. Albert was diagnosed with a learning disability, which he later credited with the development of intense listening skills that later served him well in documentary filmmaking.

Albert attended Syracuse University, from where he graduated in 1949 with a B.A. in Psychology. He later went on to earn his M.A. from Boston University, where he taught psychology for three years before switching to film. A trip to Russia to film a mental hospital was repeated the next year, but this time with a camera supplied to him by CBS, which permitted him to film his first documentary, Psychiatry in Russia, a silent film he made in 1955.

He followed this with Youth in Poland (1957), which began his collaboration with brother David. David, who had been working as a production assistant on Hollywood movies, served as co-director.

Their work impressed the famous documentarian Robert Drew. Drew, who has been called the “father” of cinema verite, invited Albert to be part of the crew, along with sound recordist D.A. Pennebaker, that produced the 1960 documentary Primary, which concerned the contest between John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey for the Democratic presidential nomination in Wisconsin.

In 1962, he and David established Maysles Films, making ends meet by producing television commercials for firms such as IBM and Merrill Lynch. Their 1964 film on the Beatles, in which they followed the rock group to three U.S. cities, was to form the linchpin of the DVD, The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit. They followed their work on The Beatles with two 1966 documentaries, Meet Marlon Brando, and With Love From Truman, both of which were well received by public and critics alike.



But it was their 1968 film, Salesmen, a study of four door-to-door Bible sellers who target the poor, which made their reputation. The 85-minute documentary follows the salesmen as the travel cross-country selling expensive Bibles to low-income families, and the accompanying crises they endure, including burnout.

They followed it that year with Monterey Pop, a deftly filmed account of the most famous pre-Woodstock concert gathering, featuring the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Otis Redding, Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Who, and the Mamas and the Papas. An indication of how exactly the camera could follow the participants was evidenced by the oft-cited scene of Cass Elliot being deeply moved while listening to Janis Joplin’s set. At the end of “Ball and Chain,” Cass is caught saying, “Wow.”

Monterey Pop proved an excellent warm-up for what became their most famous documentary, Gimme Shelter (1970), about the 1969 American tour of the Rolling Stones, which ended with the tragedy that occurred during their concert at Altamont, California, in which a fan is shown being stabbed to death. The film became a staple of countless midnight showings across the country, earning critical admiration tempered by concerns that the Maysles Brothers were also exploiting the violence.



In 1975, they made what many critics consider their masterpiece, Grey Gardens, a portrait of Edith Bouvier and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, both cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The mother and daughter were filmed living in squalor and isolation in a once grand mansion in East Hampton, N.Y. The house, infested with fleas and populated not only by the mother and daughter, but a large population of cats and raccoons, was brought to public attention as a result of a story in the National Enquirer and a cover story in New York Magazine. When notified by the Suffolk County Health Department that the Beale women were to be evicted and the house razed, Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill provide the necessary funds to repair the damage and bring the house up to village code.

Grey Gardens proved so popular that, over the years, it has taken on a life of its own, spawning a 2006 Broadway musical starring Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, and a 2009 HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the Beales, with Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jacqueline Onassis. The HBO production was nominated for 17 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning three, and was nominated for three Golden Globes.

Albert and David also made Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic (1987), which was nominated for three Primetime Emmys, winning two. Their last collaboration was Islands (1987) a study of the artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1987 Sundance Awards.

After David’s death from a stroke in 1987, Albert co-directed the 1992 Emmy Award winning Abortion: Desperate Choices, with Deborah Dickson and Susan Froemke.

Over the years since David’s death, Albert worked as director, co-director and cinematographer, on a wide range of subjects, from the Getty Museum, to Gypsy music, Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, extreme choreography, rock concerts, and artist Keith Haring. In 2001, he received the Cinematography Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for his documentary LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, about a Mississippi Delta family’s struggle against poverty. In 2006, he released The Beales of Grey Gardens, a new perspective on the Beales utilizing unseen footage from Grey Gardens. His latest project was Hollywood Renegade, a documentary about screenwriter Budd Schulberg and his times, to be released this year.

In 2006, he founded what is now the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, and in July 2014, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

Survivors include Gillian Walker, his wife of 39 years; two daughters, Rebekah and Sara; a son, Philip; and a stepdaughter, Auralice Graft.

TCM MEMORIAL TRIBUTE TO ALBERT MAYSLES

8:00 p.m. GREY GARDENS (Rialto Pictures, 1976): Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith B. Beale, Jr. Documentary of a reclusive Long Island mother and daughter living in their own world at their mansion, “Grey Gardens.”

9:48 p.m. PORTRAIT OF AN ACTOR (Calliope Films, 1971): George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere. A portrait of George C. Scott, as related on the set of his film, The Last Run.

10:00 p.m. SALESMAN (Maysles Films, 1968): Paul Brennan, Charles McDevitt. David Maysles directed this documentary about the adventures and misadventures of four door-to-door salesmen.



11:45 p.m. GIMME SHELTER (Maysles Films, 1970): The original rude boys of British rock, the Rolling Stones, tour America, culminating in a death at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in California.

1:30 a.m. MEET MARLON BRANDO (Maysles Films, 1966): Marlon Brando, Rex Morgan. A portrait of Marlon Brando, who is in New York to promote his film Morituri, goes awry when Brando becomes more interested in an interview conducted by a former winner of the Miss USA beauty contest.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

TCM TiVo Alert for March 23-31

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
March 23–March 31

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

THE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (March 23, 12:00 am): There are few actors who had the presence of Burt Lancaster  that voice, the athletic build and his ability to become one with the characters he portrayed. In this 1962 film, he plays Robert Stroud, a murderer, who from all accounts was not a nice guy. In the film, Stroud has a dark side, but comes across overall as a decent person. While in solitary confinement, Stroud adopts and trains a sparrow. After a while, he's got an entire bird collection and inspires other inmates to get birds. When some of the birds get sick, Stroud discovers ways to cure them, and becomes an expert on bird diseases. The concept may sound boring, but the screenplay is outstanding and the acting is first-rate. Besides Lancaster, the cast includes Telly Savalas as a fellow prisoner, Thelma Ritter in the performance of her career as Stroud's mother, and Karl Malden as the warden at Leavenworth. Most of the film – and the book of which it is based  takes place at Leavenworth. Stroud served some time at Alcatraz, where he wasn't permitted to have birds making the title catchy but inaccurate.

AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS (March 31, 10:00 pm): What a fantastic film! It's directed by Louis Malle and is largely autobiographical about his life at a Catholic boarding school in occupied France in 1944 during World War II. Malle's character becomes friends with another boy at the school, who is actually Jewish and being hidden from the Nazis by the school's headmaster, a priest. It's a very moving coming-of-age film that stays with the viewer long after it ends.

ED’S BEST BETS:

THE PENALTY (March 29, 12:00 am): Lon Chaney is always fascinating to watch and his performance in this film ranks with his best. He plays Blizzard, an embittered, cunning and sadistic gangland boss. His embitterment reaches back to when a negligent surgeon amputated his legs after an accident suffered in childhood. Ethel Grey Terry is a government agent whose task in to infiltrate Chaney’s gang. The film becomes a bit melodramatic at times, but Chaney is always worth the time, especially watching him performing stunts without the use of his legs. If anyone ever perfected the art of acting in the silents, it was Chaney.

ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (March 31, 4:30 am): Director Louis Malle made many a fine film, but none better than this 1958 effort about a woman and her ex-paratrooper lover who plot to kill her husband in the “perfect crime.” It’s a dark, stylish noir thriller that owes much to the influence of Hitchcock and Melville. (In fact, Hitchcock himself greatly admired the film.) Of course, things do go wrong, but they go so deliciously wrong as to keep us totally enthralled. What really makes the film is the strong, sensuous performance of star Jeanne Moreau. Malle later claimed to have discovered her, but Moreau was already a star of the stage and a veteran of B-movies before she met Malle. But this was the film that made Moreau a star. Photographed by none other than Henri Decae, it contains some breathtaking shots of Moreau and Paris at night. For those who haven’t yet seen it, it’s a definite “Must See.” And for those who have seen it, it still rates a revisit.

WE DISAGREE ON . . . CAMELOT (March 27, 10:30 pm)

ED: C. Camelot is perhaps the most overrated musical ever made. The originals 1960 Broadway hit by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe was a cultural milestone of sorts, to be associated forever with the youthful Kennedy Administration. Unfortunately, the film version was made in 1967, when the aura created by the Kennedy had given way to counter-cultural rebelliousness. The move tries to walk a thin line between an old-fashioned Hollywood musical and the themes of the ‘60s culture. What we get is a big, lumbering, almost three-hour borefest. Richard Harris as King Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere are excellent, but Franco Nero as Lancelot is awful as a romantic lead and a disaster as a singer. It also could have used a better director than Joshua Logan, who seems to miss the finer points of what he was trying to show us under all the costuming and lavish sets. At times it descends into something worthy of Monty Python. It’s only for Harris and Redgrave that I am giving it a “C.” They make the film bearable.


DAVID: D-. This is less a disagreement about Camelot and more about who has a greater hatred of this piece of garbage movie. As someone who typically doesn't like musicals, you better wow me to have a shot at getting my approval. Camelot certainly wowed me. But it was "Wow, this movie really sucks," "Wow, when will this boring film end? What? It's three hours, wow," and "Wow, I can't believe this film was released in 1967. That's the same year that groundbreaking classic films such as The GraduateIn Heat of the Night, and Bonnie and Clyde came out." In typical Hollywood style, it was also the same year that saw the release of Doctor Doolittle, another classically bad movie. What makes Camelot so awful? So as not to waste our readers' time, I'll be as brief as possible. The movie is too long; it's very dull and we're talking about King Arthur and sword fighting and things that are supposed to provide action; the music was dated in 1967 so imagine it today; everyone overacts; and most of the actors can't sing. If I want to hear Richard Harris sing badly, I can torture myself with "MacArthur Park." Like the cake in that horrible song, someone left Camelot out in the rain as the end product is all wet. I rarely recommend people avoid a film as nearly all have something worthy to see. Camelot falls into that tiny minority of movies with no redeeming value. It's a dreadful film.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Skyscraper Souls

By Ed Garea

Skyscraper Souls (MGM, 1932) Director: Edgar Selwyn. Writers: C. Gardner Sullivan (adaptation), Elmer Harris (dialogue continuity), & Faith Baldwin (novel Skyscraper). Cast: Warren William, Maureen O’Sullivan, Gregory Ratoff, Anita Page, Verree Teasdale, Norman Foster, George Barbier, Jean Hersholt, Wallace Ford, Hedda Hopper, Helen Coburn, John Marston, & William Morris. B&W, 99 minutes.

When I first saw Skyscraper Souls on TV late one night, I thought it was made by Warner Brothers, and would continue to think so for quite a while afterward. The film was right out of the Warner’s playbook for the early ‘30s, featuring lots of furtive sex, its leading lady in various stages of undress, and sex dominating the subplots. And it starred Warren William, Warner’s resident cad, a man the audience could trust as far as Stevie Wonder could see.

But no, the film wasn’t from Warner’s after all. It was made by MGM, and it took me a little while to wrap my head around that fact. The thing walked like a Warner’s film, talked like a Warner’s film, and quacked like a Warner’s film. Yet, it wasn’t. Once I discovered this fact, I was intrigued and began looking into how MGM could make an almost perfect copy of a Warner’s film of the time.


I found Skyscraper Souls to be the poorer domestic cousin of Grand Hotel. Both films were based on popular novels of the day: Grand Hotel by Vicky Baum, and Skyscraper by Faith Baldwin. Like Grand Hotel, it’s a drama, bordering on soap, which takes place in one locale. But while Grand Hotel is studded with big stars like Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and the Barrymores, the biggest stars in Skyscraper Souls are Warren William and MGM’s newly signed Maureen O’Sullivan, fresh off her co-starring role in Tarzan. The studio must have figured that, since Grand Hotel did so well, perhaps a cheaper knockoff might do just as well and not bear the overhead of the previous film.

It would seem that MGM was attempting to produce a cheaper copy of Grand Hotel at the start. Baldwin’s book was serialized in William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Magazine prior to its publication in book form in 1931. When MGM purchased the screen rights in July 1931, it announced Robert Young, Una Merkel and Madge Evans as the stars with Harry Beaumont in the director’s chair.

But by the time production on the film began in May 1932, those names were scrapped. William, who had just scored a major success that year in The Mouthpiece, was borrowed from Warner’s for the lead role as banker David Dwight, with O’Sullivan and Preston Foster signed for the main supporting roles. The directorial chores were handed over to Edgar Selwyn.

The cast and director were not the only things about Skyscraper that were changed. Much of Baldwin’s novel was gutted as well, changing the emphasis from the romance of Lynn and Tom, O’Sullivan and Foster’s characters, to the financial intrigue revolving around the character of David Dwight, who in the novel was merely a successful celebrity lawyer who once dallied with Lynn’s boss some years ago.

Seeing they couldn’t match Grand Hotel in both sophistication and star power, the folks at MGM decided to go with the next big thing: sex. Sex dominates the film’s undercurrent and seems to be the motivating factor for most of the characters. By tying this to the surface events of big business, underhanded deals, and the resulting stock market crash, MGM is trying to emulate the Warner Brothers approach to film. And while some elements of the film come off, most of it is predictable, even down to the mawkish ending.

The film is centered about the Dwight Building, a 100-story art-deco wonder in New York. During the establishing scenes we notice it standing out in comparison to the Empire State Building, which looks smaller, even though the Empire State has 102 floors. The building is the brainchild of banker David Dwight (William), who cherishes it more than anything else. As head of the Seaboard Bank he made the huge, but questionable, loan that enabled him to erect this tower to himself, and when he is questioned over the legality of the loan by the bank’s board of directors, Dwight becomes determined to save his baby at any cost.


Even Sarah Dennis (Teasdale), his closest adviser and mistress of many years, doesn’t realize the extent to which he will go in order to protect his investment. As we learn, her love for him has blinded her to the fact that his in-name-only wife, Ella (Hopper) is merely an excuse not to marry Sarah, and that he ruthlessly pursues everything he wants at the moment.

His board of directors is worried, but Dwight reassures them that he has a way out. He plans a merger with Hamilton’s Interstate, but when Hamilton (Morris) tells him that while he’s willing to merge with Seacoast, Dwight is to have no part in the new company, Dwight declines saying, “Love me, love my building.”

Switching gears, Dwight’s next target is his old friend Charlie Norton (Barbier) of the Manhattan Bank. During a party held for Norton’s honor in Dwight’s penthouse, Dwight lures Sarah’s young, innocent secretary, Lynn (O’Sullivan) up to the apartment on the pretext of delivering a report. When she arrives, however, the report is the last thing on his mind as he plies her with champagne, getting her quickly drunk to the point where she passes out in Dwight’s bed. When Lynn awakens at three in the morning, Dwight propositions her, but she turns him down flat. He escorts her down to the lobby, where Tom Shepherd, a young bank teller with whom Lynn is in love, and who has been waiting for her, is hiding. He sees Dwight and Lynn and naturally assumes the worst.

Tom confronts Lynn the next day, which leads to an argument where Lynn decides to break off their relationship, saying she wants nothing to do with a man as jealous as he. Later, Lynn tearfully confesses all to Sarah, who decides to take Tom to lunch to repair the damage. Sarah explains what really happened to Tom and urges him to reconcile with Lynn. When Tom replies that Lynn insists they need more money to get married, Sarah gives Tom an insider tip to invest his savings in Seacoast stock.

Although Tom keeps the information secret, word soon gets out about the Seacoast-Manhattan merger, and the stock soars as people invest everything they have, buying the stock on margin with the faith that their hopes and dreams will come true. Meanwhile, Hamilton approaches Dwight with a plan: he and Dwight can become rich by inflating the stock, then selling short to enrich themselves and ruin the other investors. Dwight enthusiastically accepts the plan, and soon, when the stock reaches $350 a share, Dwight and Hamilton sell, causing the stock to plummet and wiping out everyone else, including Tom and Norton. When Norton confronts Dwight, not only does Dwight show no remorse, he revels in the fact that he now owns the Dwight building outright.

Almost everyone hates Dwight’s guts, except for Lynn, who has decided to accompany him to Europe after one of Tom’s jealous outbursts. But just before Dwight is about to leave, Sarah confronts him, begging him not to ruin Lynn’s life the way he ruined hers. When Dwight ignores her pleas and starts to leave, she whips out a pistol and shoots him. Dwight pretends it’s only a flesh wound and tells his butler to get a doctor. He wipes Sarah’s fingerprints from the gun, explaining that he had an accident. Dwight tells Sarah he will always care for her, then drops dead. Distraught, Sarah goes to the roof of the building and throws herself off in grief. Sometime later, Ella sells the building while Lynn and Tom decide to start their life together, realizing that money’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

William’s electric performance as Dwight dominates the film, providing a dynamic center for the rest of the cast to play off. A lesser performance would have sunk the film before it had a chance to gain steam. William is the perfect choice for Dwight, as no one could play a cad like he could, especially one so fixated on an object. The building, when we first see it, looks like a giant phallus, and one doesn’t have to be reading Freud at Oxford to where this is going. But even though Dwight’s machinations are motivated by his brute emotion, William pulls it off with such panache as to win our respect, if not love.

Kudos are due to screenwriter Sullivan for taking the character of David Dwight from the supporting cast of the novel and transforming it into the centerpiece of the movie. With this important change, the skyscraper itself takes on a life of its own and setting the entire film within its walls doesn’t seem like a convenience for the studio.

In Baldwin’s novel, Dwight obtains his information behind the scenes from the office staff and using said information to make his investments. By moving Dwight to the forefront, Sullivan brings out the dynamism Baldwin had hinted at when originally describing him in Skyscraper’s pages.

Sullivan also simplifies the merger, which is now seen as important, but only in terms of Tom’s character and his relationship with Lynn. In the novel, Dwight is an outsider not connected with Seacoast and the merger is between Seacoast’s Norton (Barbier in the film) and another firm. The inside information becomes important to the story because Tom is Norton’s assistant. With the character of Dwight now front and center, the merger becomes one by Dwight himself, and a large part of the main storyline, with the backstage shenanigans only adding to that luster.


O’Sullivan had come to MGM after a couple of films at Fox. After she finished Tarzan, MGM was eager to see what else she could do, and decided to cast her in this film as a sort of proving ground. If she failed, they could assuage themselves in the fact that the picture didn’t cost that much money; if she succeeded, it was the perfect launching ramp for future roles. It turned out that they had nothing to worry about. In fact, the role fit her so well one could assume it was written especially for her. As the ingénue, O’Sullivan plays Lynn with a combination of youth, innocence and naivety. But underlying it all is a set of smarts that makes for a most sympathetic and intriguing gold digger.

Not that we can blame her for being a gold digger and accepting Dwight’s offer. Her fiancé, Tom (Foster) is one of the most obnoxious characters to appear on the screen. His attempts to flirt with her when they first meet are so grating as to be genuinely creepy, coming off like a cretinous stalker with his continuous libidinous advances. That these lines actually work is even worse to contemplate, and one smells the distinct odor of fast screenwriting. Tom’s constant jealousy and attempts at controlling behavior also makes us cringe to the point that we’re actually relieved when she tells him she’s going off with Dwight. And what can one say about a slapping match between the two brought on by his jealousy and ends up with the two of them being engaged? His frequent colliding with other persons and piles of boxes are ill-considered attempts at humor that come off as forced.

Teasdale, who was a popular supporting staple of films from the early ‘30s, turns in a wonderful performance as Dwight’s mistress, Sarah, the building’s manager. She’s accomplished, smart as a whip, and the force behind Dwight as a sort of mother-confessor. Her weakness is the huge blind spot she developed towards him, brought on by love and a fear of the present, as she has a vague realization that their affair is close to burning out entirely. Yet she continues to hang on.

Sarah is a character that could have just gone by the boards as just another supporting role, but Teasdale pumps life into her, especially in her relation with Lynn as a kind of mother-mentor. She treats Lynn, who supposedly is from her own hometown, almost as a daughter.

Her relationship with Dwight is a complex one; of all the people he deals with, he shows her the most kindness and humanity, possibly from their years together as a couple. He depends on her reactions and advice; using her as his private sounding board. Yet this does not stop him from continuing to string her along when it comes to marriage. One of the best scenes in the picture is when Dwight’s wife, Ella, drops by for some more support money. After Dwight leaves for a moment to attend to business, Sarah is left alone with Ella, and the two circle each other like opponents in a prizefight. But it’s Ella who lands the knockout blow when she explains the facts of Dwight, telling Sarah that “marriage to him is just protection against other women.” Although in the next breath Ella tries to lighten the damage by comparing Dwight’s behavior to geniuses like Byron and Cellini “We adore them, but we never own them” Sarah is gobsmacked. The blinds have been lifted permanently from her eyes and she realizes she’s been living a sham. Even if Ella were to divorce him so Sarah could have her turn at the altar, she realizes that although the horses may change, the race will remain the same. We also realize at the end that if Dwight were leaving with anyone else except the young and innocent Lynn, Sarah would simply accept his gifts and bid him a fond bon voyage.

Hopper, as Ella, heads the ensemble cast. Based on her acting in this and subsequent films, it’s easy to see whey she decided to switch careers. Other minor characters inhabiting the building include the kindly jeweler Jacob, played by Jean Herscholt. He’s the only man with wealth that emerges from Dwight’s scheme with any cash. He’s also in love with model and part-time hooker Jenny (Anita Page). And then there’s Myra (Helen Coburn), who loves Slim (Wallace Ford) but is married to Bill (John Marston).

The lives and activities of the lesser characters are glossed over in the film. The story between Anita Page’s Jenny and Hersholt’s Jacob is touching, but hardly touched upon as the film progresses. No, this is the story of David Dwight, and anything that gets in the way is tossed aside, as are the characters that come between Dwight and what he wants.

As mentioned before, this is an MGM film done in the style of Warner Brothers, but with an important difference. Were Skyscraper Souls a Warner Bros. film, Dwight would have pulled off his scam, but paid for it in a business way. He would have been seen as the totally immoral cad he was. However, in the MGM film, Dwight is a cad, true, but he wins the audience’s sympathy in that he’s likeable in addition to being shrewd. He could well have forced himself on a drunken Lynn that night in the bedroom, and given his business proclivities, it’s something we well might have expected of him. Instead he plays the waiting game, knowing that sooner or later she will come to him.


All throughout the movie, Dwight is supplied with a number of defining speeches, pointing out to his co-conspirators that if he had been working with them instead of against them, they would see him as a hero, no matter how many people he drove in penury:

Listen, if I double-crossed somebody else for you I wouldn't be a double-crosser. I'd be a financial genius. You'd profit by it. You'd love it. You'd love me. I'd be your pal, your leader. But I put one over on you, so I'm a double-crosser. It's all in the point of view, gentlemen. But don't despair. There's lot of small fry that you can double-cross. Just like the good old days."

And there we have it: Social Dawrwinism, pure and simple, the survival of the fittest. Dwight is the type of person who destroys lives, the difference being in his motives: if it weren’t him, it would be someone else. That’s the way the world works, and it was a philosophy strongly embedded during the Depression. We respect Dwight because we know that what he said is true, and it takes away from any pity extended to his victims, for they were also playing the same game. Only Dwight was better at it than they were.

In the end, Dwight is punished, but not for betraying the other characters, but for a personal betrayal, compounded by Sarah’s overwrought suicide from the top of the building after she shoots Dwight. It’s the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” plot, and brings down in only a few minutes what it took the film 95 minutes to build. It seems improvised on the spot and is something we would expect in a film from one of the many smaller studios that populated Gower Gulch, not MGM.

Right before fadeout we see Dwight’s widow, Ella, selling the building while Tom and Lynn have decided to persevere, deciding they can indeed live on Tom’s salary as a bank clerk. The moral to the working class is not to hope to rise above one’s situation by manipulating the stock market; that’s the province of the elite. No, learn to live within your means.

Afterwords

During the party in Dwight’s penthouse, a drunk, giggly Lynn accidentally says “shitty” rather than “silly.” Instead of a retake, the film makes a joke about it.

Co-conspirator Ham is played by William Morris, the real-life father of then leading man Chester Morris.