Archive for Juano Hernandez

God Goes West

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2020 by dcairns

One of our watch party gang requested westerns, and another didn’t like westerns, so I tried to find two westerns that weren’t.

Jacques Tourneur’s STARS IN MY CROWN is set in a small western town but doesn’t really have any of the expected action and Joel McCrea plays a parson. It’s wonderful, though.

WINCHESTER ’73 is pretty much a pure western but it’s wall-to-wall film noir people. Anthony Mann, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea. Seeing it on my little b&&w portable as a youngster was a decisive cinephile moment, I don’t know why. But I was immediately taken with Duryea.

I guess you could say these films offer contrasting visions of America. STARS is pretty timely, actually: McCrea considers his work so important he continues going door to door after his young ward comes down with typhus, and there’s reason to suspect he could be a super-spreader. McCrea comes to see this as a mistake — the film eventually lets him off the hook, rather, but it’s an interesting point.

Little Dean Stockwell complains of the quarantine lockdown — “It’s like we’re all in jail only we ain’t done nuthin’.”

Then there are these guys. I wish they didn’t seem equally timely.

I remembered McCrea’s great scene facing down the Klan armed only with a couple sheets of paper, to save Juano Hernandez from the noose. I’d forgotten it was the climax, but of course, how could they top it?

STARS gives the lie to the idea that a western can tell any kind of story. I don’t think it can tell a pacifist one. McCrea’s preacher has been a soldier, but he isn’t about to strap on his guns again, and so it never feels like SHANE or something, where the moment may be deferred, but is inevitably coming. So we have a film with all the accoutrements of a western, the period and the Americana, but we just can’t call it one.

WINCHESTER ’73, as the title implies, is one of the most gun-obsessed westerns ever made. Not the rootin’-tootin’est, but possibly the shootin’est. But at least it has an interesting female character. Mann’s westerns usually did. Unlike Ford he didn’t primarily regard women as homemakers…

It turns out to be an almost biblical tale of blood vengeance, and I realise now that not only is Duryea scary and crazy, but very hep and modern. And he can wheedle arrogantly, which is some trick. When he’s identified as the fastest gun in Texas, he wheedles, “Texas? Baby, why limit me?” Also, he’s the only person in the film who seems to be having a good time.

STARS IN MY CROWN stars John L. Sullivan; Sofia de Peralta-Reavis ‘The Baroness’; Doctor Wellington Yueh; Little John; Nayland Smith; Duke Harris; Miss Robin Crusoe; Lucas Beauchamp; Homer Higgins; Juror 10; Butch Cassidy; ‘Dum-Dum’ Clarke; Col. Edward Carruthers; ‘The Thing’; and Pee Wee.

WINCHESTER ’73 stars John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson; Charlotte Haze; Duke Pastrami; Sheriff Al Chambers; Senate Minority Leader; Marvin Unger; Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr.; ‘Teddy Roosevelt’ Brewster; Chota; and Sidney Falco.

Young Men with Horns

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2019 by dcairns

I picked up THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY from a charity shop on a whim, not knowing anything about it. The DVD didn’t say who the director was, though I kind of doubted it was going to turn out to be Luchino Visconti.

In fact, it was a person called Valentine Davies, who never directed anything else. He did originate the story of MIRACLE ON 34TH ST, though, as well as working on scripts for SYNCOPATION, THE GLENN MILLER STORY and others. Well, what the hell, I got lucky with BOY SLAVES, also from a one-off feature helmer (PJ Wolfe). Thus, while the Blu-ray of ROME, OPEN CITY languishes unviewed in a drawer, I popped this second-rate biopic into the Panasonic so I could enjoy Steve Allen pretending to play clarinet.

It turned out that Valentine Davies was labouring under twin disadvantages. Firstly, nothing interesting ever happened to Benny Goodman, or at least nothing Davies could put in a film. He didn’t even fly off in a thick fog: worse, he was still around as the film was made, the last thing you want for a biopic. (Note: this is pronounced “bio-pic.” Don’t say it to rhyme with “topic” — it’s evil.)

From Wikipedia: According to Jazz by Ken Burns, when someone asked him why he “played with that nigger” (referring to Teddy Wilson), Goodman replied, “I’ll knock you out if you use that word around me again”.

I’d really like to have seen Steve Allen say that line. He does actually have reasonably good tough-guy delivery in the few moments he’s called upon to be firm. But obviously Universal didn’t want to go there, so we have some nice examples of Goodman interacting with black musicians in a positive way, but no instance of him making an actual stand.

Valentine Davies’ second handicap was, he had no talent. Not as director, anyway. Right at the start of the film he gives us a bonafide camera angle, but that must have made him nervous because he never tries it again. Nor does he move the camera. Anyone who can leave the thing sitting rigid on sticks while Sing, Sing, Sing plays at Carnegie Hall has no cinematic feeling whatever.

Whatever filmic virtues the piece might conceivably have are hampered by the DVD being in the wrong aspect ratio. All the compositions looked, cramped, choppy and ugly, and I eventually realised it had been framed for 1:1.85 but my disc was 1:1.33. Universal generally masked off their 35mm frame to create a cheap widescreen effect, but protected themselves for TV by making sure their shots still worked with the extra space at top and bottom. I tried resetting my TV to 1:1.66, thinking this might give me a better sense of the Valentine Davies cinematic experience.

It didn’t really help much.

For all I know, I was watching a 1:1.66 chopped-down framing of a 1.1.33 chopped down framing of a 1:1.85 chopped down framing of the original 1:1.33 negative, but if so the original must have been like watching Goodman from the back row at Carnegie Hall.

Incidentally, I reckon Goodman’s celebrated 1937 concert at that venue must have inspired the fictitious protagonist’s climactic gig in ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, released the following year. Clearly, if only Donna Reed had had John Carradine to drive her, she wouldn’t have been late for the gig.

Best thing I can say for this one is that Allen makes a very good Goodman lookalike, and Barry Truex, son of Ernest, playing Goodman as a boy, makes a very very good Goodman lookalike lookalike.

I turned to YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, no doubt unconsciously looking for a more cinema-savvy version of the same kind of thing. Of course, Michael Curtiz provided what I sought. Though the film, based on a novel based in turn on the life of Bix Beiderbecke (with whom Goodman played), doesn’t quite have a real story as such, and the happy ending feels very artificial — you can practically see the tacks holding it on — it’s bursting with meaty scenes and star perfs, the framing is beautiful, and Curtiz glides his camera to the music to evoke jazz rapture.

Damn good role for Juano Hernandez, too.