Final Curtain for Mr. Curtiz

This is a hilarious directorial credit: an unresurrected Christ lying just below the moniker of a man moments from death himself. Well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?

The idea of making a study of late Curtiz would normally only occur to somebody actually writing a book on the Hungarian-born filmmaker, because the view has long been that Curtiz had a strong sense of visual style but no particular set of obsessions to make a traditional auteur of him. So why look at his later, not-so good movies?

Curtiz made every kind of film, it seems. (Those who claim to have made every kind of film tend to be lacking in the horror, sci-fi and musical departments, but Curtiz made those too.) He brought a strong visual sensibility, but apparently cared nothing for themes and not much for actors or story. His boss, Jack Warner, wrote: “I had a general conversation with Mike Curtiz in the usual Curtiz manner in the dining room at noon, and all he talked about were the sets and that he wants to build a fort somewhere else, and all a lot of hooey. I didn’t hear him say a word about the story. In other words, he’s still the same old Curtiz—as he always will be!”

B. Kite is very good on this here. (Scroll down past my nonsense.)

B. also once opined to me that Curtiz maybe only works in black & white, though perhaps it’s truer and fairer to say that a certain quality of Curtiz comes through strongest that way. I think his two-strip terrors MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and DOCTOR X. are terrific, so maybe Curtiz is still Curtiz with two strips of colour, but loses out with three. There are definitely good colour films made by Curtiz: THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, WE’RE NO ANGELS, etc. But they don’t quite have the distinct visual splendour of his WB monochrome movies. B. sees him, I think, as a very pure channel for the WB house style.

Still, the first thing to be said about Curtiz’s last three features is that they’re visually lovely, at least in places. All three are widescreen, and he seems able to adapt his tight compositions to the 1:2.35 frame ratio more comfortably than I would imagine 1:1.88 might suit him. A degree of difficulty helps him, and widescreen and academy ratio are both hard to compose for (snakes and funerals on the one hand, bungalows and bulldogs on the other).

   

THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1960) is frequently absolutely gorgeous, which matters a lot because it doesn’t quite find the right tone: you feel like some very good humour is being reported to you by somebody who doesn’t quite get it. Eddie Hodges (Huck) and Archie Moore (Jim) are decent, but don’t seem to gel with each other or anybody else. The rest of the cast go for big and broad: Tony Randall makes the most and then some of a series of phony accents, partnered up with Mickey Shaugnessy to create a team similar to the bad guys in Disney’s PINOCCHIO; Buster Keaton forms another of his unlikely double acts with Andy Devine, and doesn’t get to MOVE; Finlay Currie is fine as always. The best completely straight perf is Neville Brand, authentically scary and nasty as Pap Finn.

Now, as far back as THE EGYPTIAN in 1954, Peter Ustinov had formed the impression that Curtiz was not all there. He had always laboured under a considerable linguistic handicap (his mangling of the language was legendary, and wonderfully poetic at times — “Bring on the empty horses!” was evocative enough for David Niven to use it as title for one of his memoirs), and this combined with age and his disengagement from his actors maybe made him not the ideal man to do Twain. But he had succeeded at many other unlikely subjects in the past.

The Cinemascope stiffness, coupled with Curtiz’s own, the big, forced performances, and a lot of overplaying whenever Huck has to invent a “stretcher,” combine to stifle most of the comic possibilities here, so what we get instead is some moderate suspense and a pageant of grotesque characters and attractive settings. Ted D. McCord does a great job shooting it and Jerome Moross provides a typically ebullient score. It’s not poor, but it’s not quite alive.

Never mind, FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1961) is a religious epic, so you wouldn’t ever expect it to be alive, and it sure doesn’t disappoint. Saint-to-be Francis is played by a series of beautiful matte paintings of Bradford Dillman, Stuart Whitman is his frenemy/rival, and Dolores Hart the girl he throws over for God. She’s the only one in the film who breathes any humanity into her role, struggling against stiff dialogue and stilted situations. There’s a surprising lack of miracles and the animal-taming bit is given very  little play, surprisingly. Finlay Currie is fine as always, promoted from riverboat captain to pope, a big step up for an Edinburgh man.

   

Lots of spectacle, some of it impressive. The landscapes and the groupings of people fill the frame inventively, but Curtiz’s signature camera moves are becoming ever less frequent. He’ll push in occasionally; follow people about a little; but the grand sweep of his glory days when he’d hurry on to a set at an acute angle to the action, letting foreground furniture flash past, that’s all gone.

Bradford Dillman is someone I quite like, but he’s hopelessly adrift here. I’m not sure who could animate the script’s plaster saint. Occasional lines referring to Francis as “little” make you imagine someone intended him to be mild-mannered and tiny: by chance, Mervyn Johns is to hand, and I thought to myself, “Get me a young Mervyn Johns.” It can only work as a character part, as it’s so sexless. (Dillman could have slid some sly sensuality in there if there’d been the faintest opportunity: isn’t that what he’s for? Those lips!)

Piero Portalupi shot it and Mario Nascimbene provides the choral uplift.The film Curtiz bowed out on, however, was THE COMANCHEROS, released the same year (Curtiz died, aged 75, the following year). It’s pretty fair, I guess. If I liked John Wayne a bit more, or Stuart Whitman at all, I might call it an impressive finish for him. I think Whitman is miscast as a New Orleans gent on the run for killing a man in a duel. A lot of this movie is supposed to be enjoyable because of the spectacle of the plebeian Duke shoving his highfalutin prisoner around, but Whitman isn’t enough of a toff. You need Peter Lawford, probably. Wow, I never thought I’d type those words.

John Wayne had quite a track record of late films, didn’t he? After all there’s this, RIO LOBO, which was Howard Hawks’ last; BIG JAKE, George Sherman’s last; JET PILOT, a late Sternberg; BLOOD ALLEY, a late Wellman; TRUE GRIT, a late Hathaway; and THE CONQUEROR, which killed just about everyone in it. He also directed his own last film as director, BIG JAKE THE GREEN BERETS, and starred in his own last film as actor, THE SHOOTIST, a conscious self-elegy. I guess he just liked working with old guys when he was old, The most charming moment in THE COMANCHEROS is when Wayne signs into a hotel using the pseudonym “Ed McBain” and we notice that cinematographer William H. Clothier and the rest of the crew have checked in ahead of him. Curtiz hasn’t checked in, probably because he’s too busy checking out.

The best scene is a poker game where the single-source lighting is really beautiful and Wayne looks SO different and so much more interesting. Also playing is Lee Marvin, a bad guy with half a scalp (you could probably build a whole other Lee Marvin out of the bits Marvin had removed in his various characterisations). Elsewhere, the Arizona and Utah settings are epic and prehistoric. The finale is a bit pathetic: leading lady Ina Balin has to get over the death of her bad guy father in abound four seconds so she can look overjoyed at the happy ending. See also the studio-imposed finish of ONE-EYED JACKS.

Elmer Bernstein does the music on this one, and although it’s a bit more stately than THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, as befits Wayne’s age and lumbering gait, you get the idea. It seemed kind of weird to me how the music stays celebratory during life-and-death conflicts and chases. Shouldn’t we be taking this seriously?THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN: Starring Rockwell P. Hunter, Rhoda Penmark, Maj. Marvin Groper, Hunk Houghton, Daisy Hawkins, Link Appleyard, Rollo Treadway, Reinhardt Heidrich, Winnie the Pooh, Tom Fury, Johnny Farragut and Magwitch.

FRANCIS OF ASSISI: Starring Big Eddie, Lisa Held, Orvil Newton, Prof. Thurgood Elson, Dr. Stern, Mrs. Karswell, Bob Cratchit and Magwitch again.

THE COMANCHEROS: Starring Ethan Edwards, Orvil Newton again, Little Bonaparte, Liberty Valance, Lt. Greenhill, John Driscoll, Charlie Max and Garbitsch.

Advertisements

19 Responses to “Final Curtain for Mr. Curtiz”

  1. As I trust you know Dolores Hart actually “got religion” in real life. In Cukor’s files at the MPAA Library there’s a marvelous correspondence between them. Cukor wasn’t particularly religious but he was fascinated by an actress with a solid career threw it all over to become a nun. Mother Dolores is still with us and even showed up at the Oscar ceremonies a couple of years back.

  2. Wow! Well, she rehearses becoming a Bride of Christ in this one. I may add a frame grab of her in her habit…

  3. Neville Brand seems like the type of guy who should be a generic heavy, yet seems to consistently shine in his roles: he’s pretty good in Stalag 17 too. Aren’t his two late career triumphs Eaten Alive, where he apparently gives a genuinely great performance, and as the smarmy rapist who Vince Edwards is forced to team up with in The Mad Bomber? (The Mad Bomber seems particularly wacky – Vince Edwards is an unhinged cop, Chuck Connors the titular villain, and Brand is the only witness to see Connors, hence his team up despite being caught in the act).

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    I think Brand also appeared in one episode of an urban series, (perhaps KOJACK?) playing an ex-addict running a hostel for “cold yturkey” patients. He was a lot healthier and slimmer than he appeared wearing his Reese costume from LAREDO in THE DESPERADOS starring Vince Edwards and Jack Palance that I believe was filmed in Scotland?

  5. The IMDb has Spain listed for that one. I never heard of any westerns shooting here, though I guess the Grampians could perhaps stand in for the Northwest.

    Brand’s credits sound mental! I was impressed by him here and will watch out for future appearances.

  6. “Finlay Currie is … promoted from riverboat captain to pope, a big step up for an Edinburgh man.”
    Not if he was a prod. He probably wanted a bonus for the humiliation. I’m sure he was a tug-boat cabin in a 1930s quota-quickie too, but I can’t find it.

  7. Maybe he thought he could destroy the Vatican from within.

    It would be crazy if he never played a tugboat captain, he seems perfect. I saw him recently in a 30s quickie on Talking Pictures TV playing an American showbiz agent, doing a version of a New York accent more enthusiastic than accurate.

  8. BIG JAKE is actually George Sherman’s last picture. Wayne didn’t direct but his company Batjac produced.

  9. Ahah — IMDb lists it as his last film as director, but uncredited. Meaning he possibly took over for a scene or something, I suspect. When I click through – as I shoulda done – I see Sherman’s name. Thanks for keeping me honest!

  10. revelator60 Says:

    You’re absolutely right about THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN—gorgeous visuals but a vaporous adaptation. Like most of the preceding Huck Finns it was actually shot in the Sacramento Delta (on the San Joaquin river), not the Mississippi. For my money the best screen version of the book is still the William Desmond Taylor film from 1920, though what survives is somewhat short.

    It doesn’t qualify as late Curtiz, but THE BREAKING POINT, released last year by Criterion, is a very, very fine movie.

  11. Thanks! I’ll work my way backwards to The Breaking Point (very Curtiz title, his sadism being a trademark).

    I have the WDT version, must look at it!

  12. You must see ‘The Breaking Point.’ When I saw it a few years ago at (I think) he Film Forum, there was an audible gasp from the audience at the final shot.

  13. Neville Brand also shone in noir and crime films, appearing in Riot in Cell Block 11, D.O.A., Kansas City Confidential, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, The Mob, The Turning Point, and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

  14. That would seem like his natural habitat — he’s almost too scary for a kids’ film, even one with clear adult qualities and a wide range of tones…

  15. I am currently reading the Curtiz bio by Alan K. Rode. Curtiz would indeed shape the stories and structure of his films. Curtiz’s wife, writer Bess Meredyth, was his collaborator on story and script development.

  16. Thanks! Interesting… it didn’t obviously show in terms of a consistent world view, apart from his love of PG-rated sadism. But I think the auteurists often push thematic similarities at the expense of stylistic ones, and Curtiz had a beautiful and very consistent style.

  17. C. Jerry Kutner Says:

    Curtiz’s principal them is so obvious it’s easy to miss – the rebel hero (Bogart in Casablanca, Huck Finn and St. Francis in the two films you discuss) or rebel heroine (Glenda Farrell in Wax Museum, Crawford in Mildred Pierce), characters who go against the grain, discussed in more detail here (https://brightlightsfilm.com/michael-curtiz-auteur-without-a-theme/#.XAhvNotKi1s). And btw, I really like his Huck Finn.

  18. C. Jerry Kutner Says:

    Note also the recurring pattern of rebel hero torn between good girl and bad girl. See, e.g., YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, THE EGYPTIAN, KING CREOLE ….

  19. True enough! Errol Flynn usually played some kind of rebel hero, too. Rosalind Russell also qualifies, in Roughly Speaking (a Christmas fave).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: