Archive for Once Upon a Time in the West

Pancake Mix

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2017 by dcairns

One of the best films at the 2016 Il Cinema Ritrovato was ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. A mental note was made to see more of his stuff, but it must have gotten misfiled because here I am just getting round to it. Fiona immediately got very enthused about seeing Fredi Washington in action: such a fascinating figure.

IMITATION OF LIFE — the original. Very good, and interesting to compare with the Sirk. Our friend Nicky Smith remarked that the original is stronger because it makes it obvious that the white heroine is robbing her “friend” — Claudette Colbert mass-produces Louise Beavers’ family recipe for pancake flour, and gives her 20% of the profits. 20%? I wonder if 1934 audiences were able to convince themselves this was a fair deal.

Beavers, accustomed to playing maid/stooge to Mae West and others, here gets to play at least a version of a human being, though there are still jokes about her character being naive or “dumb,” and she arrives at the door with a portentous track-in on her beaming face which seems to be setting her up as some kind of Magic Negress, a miraculous Mary Poppins sent by Fate to help the white folks out. No needs of her own. But this is not precisely what happens.

Basically, the film parallels three plots — first, the rise and rise of Colbert’s business, which is a straightforward American Dream success story with no twists, reversals or developments of any kind except the irresistible rise of the Pancake Queen. Then there’s Colbert and her daughter both falling for the same man, starving lion Warren William. It’s a Story as old as Time: the love of a Pancake Queen and a debonair ichthyologist. And then there’s the relationship of Beavers with her own daughter, who grows up to be Fredi Washington, who decides to pass as white. As Sirk rightly said, this is the only aspect if Fannie Hurst’s source novel that actually gives you any drama capable of supporting a film.

We won’t deal with the pancake business anymore except to say that the business with Claudette opening her own pancake shop and then franchising reminded me very much of MILDRED PIERCE, which also has mother and daughter fancying the same man. The James M. Cain book and Michael Curtiz movie (enjoyed in its new restoration very much at Il Cinema Ritrovato THIS year) takes the romantic triangle MUCH further, and I wondered if there was a direct influence from Hurst’s 1933 novel onto Cain’s 1941 one. And the fact that Cain had a book (Serenade) adapted by Stahl (as WHEN TOMORROW COMES) in 1939 seems to me to make this likelier. Cain, a master of the technique he called the “love rack”may have sensed that Hurst was letting her triangle fizzle out by shying away from the more awful possibilities, and felt he could get a lot more value out of it…

The race theme is the heart of the picture, and thanks to Beavers and especially Washington, is moving and insightful, even though the story keeps having to contrive ways for dark-skinned mother to embarrass fair-skinned daughter. Both characters’ arguments with regards to accepting the hand dealt you, or using subterfuge to improve it, are compelling, and though the film obviously favours Louise, it doesn’t push its viewpoint too hard.

Beavers on the world’s largest pillow. I mean, that’s a seriously EDWARD SCISSORHANDS size pillow there.

Comparison with the Sirk: the idea of a remake was doubtless only embraced due to the salacious rumours circulating after the death of Lana Turner’s lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato (best gangster name ever? I mean, you don’t need to be called “Dutch” or “Bugsy” or Legs” or “Baby Face” if your surname is already Stompanato. Though J.S. did have a nickname, it wasn’t for himself, just his penis: he called it “the Oscar”). After Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Stompanato to death in the kitchen (or did Lana do it, really?) it was bandied about town that both Lana and Cheryl had been intimate with the Oscar.

(I’ve seen a short extract of Lana’s courtroom testimony. It’s a true Lana Turner performance: camo and artificial and soapy in the best way. The jury must have loved it. It suggests that either Lana is acting for her life, or that she’s sincere and so are all her weird, artificial performances. Strange.)

So producer Ross Hunter was hoping to titillate his audience by casting Lana in the remake. Her casting meant, for some reason, that the whole Pancake Queen thing had to go (and while we’re at it let’s have John Gavin NOT play an ichthyologist) which created some plausibility issues. In this version, widowed mother Lana becomes a star of stage and screen at 38. Hmm, could this be a roman a clef, closely based on the true life story of NO WOMAN EVER? Also, by cutting the pancake mix, Lana’s maid, Juanita Moore, isn’t trousering 20% of the profits from a flour empire, and so her colossal funeral at the end of the film doesn’t really make any naturalistic sense. I saw it with my late lamented friend Lawrie and he was in hysterics at the vast pomp of it all: “But she’s just a cleaning woman! A very good cleaning woman, but…” Not the intended reaction, and the original movie doesn’t have that problem (though it does have the unreal idea of Beavers having no interest in money — in my experience, most poor people would like to be rich).

(Getting distracted by petty realistic details is a vice. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to a friend, who wanted to know, while Bronson’s brother was being hanged from an arch in the desert, “Where’s the ladder?” A foolish question anyway, since it could easily be the other side of the camera.)

The bigger problem in the remake is arguably the casting of Susan Kohner, of Jewish/Mexican decent, playing Moore’s daughter, the Fredi Washington part. We are less convinced by the genetics, and we also KNOW that there was someone out there of the correct racial background who could have played the part just as well. And though Kohner had done a few movies and was probably being built up by Universal, it’s not like the public really knew who she was. It would have made no big difference to the box office if the part had been played by a real pale-skinned African-American actress. And even if you’re willing to forgive the compromise, a bit more effort is require in the way of suspension of disbelief.

In many ways, the commercial cinema of 1959 was less liberated than that of 1934 — discuss.

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Hi Ho

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2015 by dcairns

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When I first visited Richard Lester to try to talk him into giving an interview, we exchanged a few words about the generally regrettable state of Hollywood cinema and recent flops. “But THE LONE RANGER is coming!” he added, with gleeful irony.

It came, it flopped, and now as with JOHN CARTER people are starting to say, Hey, that wasn’t so bad. A little different.

(I strongly recommend Scout Tafoya’s video essay on LONE RANGER, comparing it to HEAVEN’S GATE. Really! It makes sense.)

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JOHN CARTER had some unwearable costumes and bland characters, but was also fun, spectacular and had a really good ending. LONE RANGER is beautifully designed and shot, and the characters certainly aren’t bland, but tonally it must be admitted there’s something haywire. I think someone felt that some humour was needed to make it commercial, but the goofy humour and broad slapstick selected are a little too far from the darker stuff, the genocide and cannibalism. It’s hard to conceive of a film that could contain that breadth of material and attitude without rupturing itself. I guess the rabid rabbits are an attempt at finding something that’s as goofy as slapstick and as creepy as cannibalism, but they don’t work.

How else to describe the film’s problem? Well, on the one hand it borrows from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST almost as extravagantly as the same director’s RANGO swiped from CHINATOWN, and also from LITTLE BIG MAN, THE GENERAL, THE WILD BUNCH and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. But it also seems to reference NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (see above), PLANET TERROR (one-legged woman with a gun for a prosthesis) and there’s a bit of DEAD MAN thrown in. That indicates either a very ambitious film, one whose scope might not fit within the requirements of a summer blockbuster, or else someone has been drinking loco water.

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I think tonal uncertainty is a key thing that makes audiences reject something. I mean, when we don’t know how to react to moments in David Lynch’s work, it’s clear enough that he’s put in a lot of work to make us feel that our conflicted response is OK. To give one example in LONE RANGER, the hero is mercilessly dumped on by the writers, and his Dudley Doright stuffiness allows quite a bit of fun to be poked. But when they try to make us laugh at his concern for his dead brother’s kidnapped wife, it’s rather awkward — because the last time we saw her, it looked as if she’d been shot in the head. Too soon?

Then there’s the film’s approach to race, which I think is well-intentioned but still troublesome. The casual shooting of innocent black and Chinese characters seems intended to make a point about the evils of the times, and a valid one, but in a feel-good action film shouldn’t there be something positive for the non-white audience to take away? Otherwise it feels like an unintended point is being made about the evils of modern Hollywood blockbusters, where the minorities can be laid waste but it’s still a happy ending because the important white folks were saved. (Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s point, expressed in Breakfast of Champions, that stories where there are important versus unimportant characters are a part of our major social problem.) And it’s true that the film’s ending is quite a bit less heartening than is usual in these things — his arc is one of gradual disillusionment with all of western civilisation, and he doesn’t even get the girl. But they’re still trying to make us laugh…

But it’s quite possible to enjoy most of the film on one level or another, if you treat it as a series of scenes rather than as a coherent whole — it’s only the tone that fragments it. The plot, on the other hand (by PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN scribes Elliott & Rossio, plus Justin Haythe whose big credit is, weirdly, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD), is perfectly serviceable, with enough reverses and surprises and logic and motivation to scrape by.. In particular, Tonto’s back story is cleverly prepared for, and quite moving when delivered. And fans of beautiful imagery certainly wouldn’t be able to watch this and then claim that they hadn’t seen a great deal of beautiful imagery. Some of it original. Verbinski can do shots which are epic, shots which are poetic, and shots that are funny, actual comic compositions which do support the film’s ambition to bow down to Buster Keaton.

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Christ Recrucified

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 26, 2012 by dcairns

I hadn’t heard of Valerio Zurlini until Shane Danielsen programmed a retrospective of this fascinating figure at the Edinburgh Film Festival some years back. Being strapped for cash at the time and not possessing a press pass, staff pass or filmmaker pass, I wasn’t able to see very many of the films, so it was with pleasure that I recently caught up with BLACK JESUS, enabling me to write a few words about it for The Forgotten. Thanks to retrospectives like Edinburgh’s, Zurlini isn’t as hugely forgotten as he was, but he’s still far from being what you might call a household name. Even in my household.

If the idea of Woody Strode, the same year as his iconic cameo in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, playing at one and the same time Patrice Lumumba and Jesus Christ, doesn’t tickle your fancy, I have to ask if your fancy isn’t perhaps overdressed for the weather.